The post-9/11 world is such a huge chunk of my working life, and 20 years is a milestone and worth some reflections, so I guess I should write something about it. I wasn’t in the country on that day – I was returning home from a mission in the Caribbean, and was waiting in Puerto Rico for my flight to Miami as the first airplane hit the World Trade Center.
I have stories about trying to get home (it took some string pulling and four days), and of course all that has followed from the US reaction to that day, from getting frantic calls for information on Afghanistan (I had been there in the late 1980’s), to helping with aspects of the Iraq invasion planning, and so many other episodes. But, to be honest, I think the time for those kinds of stories has long past.
In the days after the attack I was involved in a position paper pointing out that overreacting had the potential to cause more harm than the original attack. It was pointed out that in terms of deaths, the terrorist attack was a blip in our yearly murder rate (therefore Americans are better than killing ourselves that the jihadis). That this wasn’t, as was being alleged, a failure in intelligence – we had all the pieces, and some analysts had put them together, it just wasn’t communicated to the right people for action. It wasn’t really even a major failure in security – minor changes in procedure could and should have caught the hijackers. The Taliban were open to turning over those thought to be directly behind the attacks – and of course those ultimately responsible, the Wahhabi extremists and their financial backers in the Saudi government, were well known. So maybe we shouldn’t over react, but just kill the planners in some suitably public and messy way, quietly (but equally messily) take out a couple Saudi princes who were supporting the spread of Wahhabism to make that point, tweak what needed tweaking, and move on.
But tweaking and minor fixes isn’t the American way. Neither, apparently, is moving on.
War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War in Syria. US forces engaged in open combat across the horn of Africa. Proxy wars across the region. A new, dystopian “Department of Homeland Security” with intrusive and expensive security theater. Militarization of civilian police forces. Fear. Paranoia.
Was it an over-reaction, and was it worth it? Consider: the US has almost certainly killed over TWO HUNDRED times more civilians – CIVILIANS – in its response to 9/11 than were killed in the original attacks. We have directly inflicted several thousand times – probably as much as 10 thousand times, and if you include secondary factors, an eye watering thirty thousand times – as much economic damage on ourselves and the world as was inflicted on us on that day 20 years ago.
And the result? Near East Asia is in far worse shape today than it was twenty years ago. American society has fractured, I think in significant part due to the self inflicted stresses and distorted priorities the last twenty years have brought. So while those with a vested interest in not being overly reflective on all this will talk about heroics (and there was much) and loss (again, there was much), I can’t help but think we turned a tragedy into a catastrophe.
I will close with one 9/11 related story, the reason for the picture of the Iguana. I was on the first airplane to depart Luis Munoz Marin International Airport that was allowed to return to the US. We had problems getting take-off clearance. Not security, or paperwork, on any of the usual reasons.
But because there had been no traffic for several days, the Iguanas had taken over the runways and taxiways, the tarmac staying warm overnight, and it being a perfect place to bask in the morning sun. This a problem at SJU on normal days, but on Friday September 14th, 2001, it was extreme. A truck had to preceded our airplane as we taxied out with line crews jumping out and shooing the lizards out of the way; then did the same to clear the runway. We were told they ran back to their spots as soon as we took off, and it took days for things to return to normal.
Unlike most hard-core partisans or overly cynical observers, I’m reluctant to accuse a politician of outright lying. Usually politicians manage to find some shred of truth in which to wrap their falsehoods, and many statements are assumption dependent, so you while you can often say something is wrong or false, you have to be careful about saying something is a lie, which goes to intent. Accusing a politician of lying is also inflammatory and doesn’t help the public discourse. But there is little room for nuance here: President Biden lied when he said Afghanistan was “never about nation building.” It was *always* about nation building, and he was an integral part of developing that policy.
The proof is easily seen in the October 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was the key legal basis for our intervention. That agreement is cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and other documents authorizing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically says in the list of requests, to …
Urge the United Nations, the international community, particularly donor countries and multilateral institutions, to reaffirm, strengthen and implement their commitment to assist with the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, in coordination with the Interim Authority;
Multi-billion dollar legislation such as The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-327, S. 2712) that was passed by Congress on November 15, 2002 and signed by the President (Bush II) on December 4, 2002 went through Biden’s senate committee. While many of the press releases have been lost or scrubbed from official USG web sites, some are still out there in various forms such as as at this State Department release from 2003, at a reliefweb link. Note the extensive list of reconstruction and capacity building projects. Resource inventories were made, roads and buildings constructed, institutions created.
So it seems the intervention was explicitly about “Nation Building” from the very beginning. Of course it was; the problem with Afghanistan all along was that it had no functional central government that could prevent groups like Al Qaeda from using it as a base. Biden, as a Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001-2003, knew this. As Vice President during Obama he was involved in many of the additional capacity building efforts (aka “nation building”) during that period, such as the creation of a US style Central Bank system. Unless he is becoming senile (which would be a different, perhaps worse concern), there is little room to wiggle here: he lied.
Before someone points to all of Trump’s lies, that’s sort of irrelevant. He didn’t campaign on being a reality based leader. Even Trump’s followers admit he has a sometimes difficult relationship with the truth, so when he said something that was clearly false, it’s not like he ever actually promised to tell the truth. Most rational people had no hope or expectation that Trump would be truthful; and, of course, the media has been harping on Trumps “lies” for years. With Biden there may not have been a lot of hope, but there was an expectation of some level of honesty with respect to the big things. And the really sad part is Biden didn’t have to lie about this. He could (and should) have just concentrated on how the current situation got out of hand, and left the big picture of why the nation building didn’t work to a more appropriate occasion. But I guess he (or his speechwriters) just couldn’t resist trying to shift the blame. It was an opportunity to be a statesman. He failed.
I’ve been a bit surprised at the negative coverage of Biden’s performance this last week (even CNN has been harsh), we’ll see how long this new media fairness remains. But fair or not, the collapse of the US intervention in Afghanistan, and the President’s clearly self-serving and misleading statements have made a bad situation in the US worse: mistrust of politicians.
Over the last 20 years I have done numerous flights for Veterans Airlift Command (aka “Hero Flights”) taking wounded vets and their families back and forth to specialized medical treatment (since our Government can’t be bothered to do that), not to mention suffering the effects of TBI’s myself partly due to service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq nearly 40 years ago. It’s nice people say “thank you for your service,” but what those who serve in the military/foreign service/intelligence world really want and deserve is for their sacrifice to mean something. They want the world to be a better place because of what they – and more importantly those who lost their lives – went through.
The betrayed feeling among military veterans has been building, and the last 72 hours poured gas on it. Biden’s speech Monday obviously didn’t help. Will that have political and social impacts? I don’t know, but it certainly could both directly and indirectly. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan has often been cited as one of the elements in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the bitterness of the Afgansty (Afghan Vets) were an important social factor in that collapse. The state of Afghanistan on their departure is arguable; the Soviets certainly made a better job of it than the US has. The Soviets left in 1989, the government didn’t fall for three years, whereas our client state fell before we were even out of the country. In the Soviet Union, the impacts at home due to the perceived loss of credibility and treatment of veterans, coming on top of the mistrust created by events like Chernobyl, were all factors in destroying the credibility of the Party and when the economic stress of reform hit home the system collapsed.
Is COVID America’s Chernobyl? Is Afghanistan America’s, um, Afghanistan? As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”
Somehow trust in our key political institutions must be restored. I’m not sure how that can happen given the deep endemic corruption in both political parties, fed by the ratings driven media system. But ultimately it’s up to you, the voters, to not stand for having leaders like Trump and Biden on the ballot – much less in office. Politicians won’t change until they are punished more for being misleading than they are for being honest. Demand the truth – not just from the other side, but especially from your own, and be adult enough to realize that often you won’t like it.
Watching the Taliban take over Afghanistan (again) brings back many memories – nightmares, really – of America’s forty year long, utterly catastrophic involvement in that country. No, that’s not a typo: forty years. The current talk is as if 9/11 and the subsequent 20 years are the story. It isn’t. The US involvement in Afghanistan started with trying to cause the Soviets heartburn, kicking off not long after the initial invasion in 1979 but starting in earnest in the early 1980’s. The cost is certainly well over four trillion dollars (the 2.2 figure being tossed around is way too low even if you start the count in 2001). As for lives lost, hundreds of thousands of lives have been destroyed. The official count of military deaths only includes immediate combat deaths, not injuries both mental and physical, much less the civilian count which is probably at least 50 to 100 times that number.
Afghanistan has been nicknamed “the graveyard of empires.” I think that’s wrong. It, like much of near east Asia, is the graveyard of patience and nursery of grievances (that often don’t directly involve the people caught in the crossfire) that breeds the next generation of hubris. Contrary to popular belief in the US, the Soviets actually left Afghanistan in fairly stable shape. I don’t agree with all of what he says, but the excellent strategic analyst Andrei Martyanov has some great points, especially that (simplifying things a bit here) the country had an opportunity for long term stability when the Soviets left, and it was the withdrawal of Russian support when Yeltsin took over (after the disintegration of the Soviet Union) combined with continued outside interference that caused the fall of the Najibullah government that led to the first takeover by the Taliban. His major point in this link – that the US was largely responsible for the rise of radical Islam, and it was the Soviet Union (and now Russia) that are the major opponents – is in my view reasonably correct.
Inflaming religious tensions and supporting extremists may be expediant in the short run, but it is toxic to long term stability. We allowed Pakistan to harbor (and support) the Taliban and other extremists as well. This Deutsche Weld interview with Heela Najibullah, the former president’s daughter, is an interesting read on how we got here. I’d add for emphasis that it was Saudi money and resources that spread Whahabbist and Deobandi (from which the Taliban derive) radicals across Near East Asia – with the implicit (and in Afghanistan explicit) support of the US that has lead to many of the modern problems across the region. Indeed, in Syria, we see the insane situation where the US is funding and training the Taliban’s cousins and allies – the same people that attacked us on 9/11. That’s how it always is when your foreign policy is based on short sighted and arrogant expedience.
To those who served there – both under the radar in the 80’s and 90’s, and those somewhat better known since 2001 – while this is unbelievably painful, always keep in mind it isn’t our fault. We did our duty. The blame, and shame, belongs to both the political leadership of this country and the voters who put them in place without holding them accountable for their failures. I was in my early 20’s when I first saw Afghanistan at the leading edge of our involvement there in the 1980’s, and the best maps we had were “acquired” Soviet maps. Today we have our own maps, some I helped create. Too bad our leaders never developed any sane policies to go with them, and are leaving a mess as big if not bigger than we found it.
Two storms are stalking the West Pacific, and both may hit Taiwan. Typhoon In-Fa is a category 1 (Saffir Simpson Scale) storm passing south of Okinawa over the next 24 hours. The track is further south than forecast a few days ago (about 100 miles vs 30 or so at one point), and the island should be at or below tropical storm force. The far southern Ryuku Islands of Miyako-jima won’t be so lucky if this forecast holds, as the current JTWC forecast shows a category two storm sweeping through in 36 to 48 hours. On that track the storm will pass right over the heavily populated northern tip of Taiwan, and the capital city of Taipei as a strong (but weakening) category one storm. Here’s the swath – in this case a “two-fer” as Typhoon Cempaka, making landfall south of Macau today as a weak category one storm, is expected to do a loop and return to the South China Sea before regaining strength and heading towards … Taiwan:
While the island is more resilient to storms than the US, it will still prove disruptive. Rains in the mountainous areas can cause flash flooding and landslides, and there are always power outages and light damage in even a minimal typhoon (hurricane – different names for the same phenomena, formally known as a “tropical cyclone”).
The South China Sea is a major potential conflict zone, with Mainland China (the People’s Republic of China or PRC) aggressively pushing claims across the region, building bases on disputed coral reefs and conducting almost daily military operations. The island nation (from the perspective of the Republic of China, the island itself) or administrative area (from the perspective of the PRC) is the subject of a major push for reunification by the mainland. The PRC’s President Xi has made it a key objective of his administration, and the propaganda has become increasingly belligerent over the last few years. The July/August issue of “Foreign Affairs” was devoted to the issue (not linked since it’s paywalled) but a summary from the BBC is at this link. Taiwan is a complex flashpoint, and having a natural disaster in the area is potentially destabilizing many levels besides the political, not the least of which are current shortages of semiconductors. Taiwan is the major global supplier of these critical components, which has been of concern for many years by those who study the increasingly vulnerable global supply chain. Globalization has economic advantages, but overspecialization of key sectors within such a small area is a bad idea because of natural hazards, much less if one of it’s neighbors is threatening to use nuclear weapons to grab it …
There’s lots of doom stalking the earth, but mostly of the “humans are their own worst enemy” variety. There is only one active tropical cyclone – Hurricane Felicia, off the west coast of Mexico and headed out into open water. The invest area in the Atlantic is nothing to worry about, probably just a bored forecaster. There is a more serious threat potentially developing in the West Pacific that some of the models forecast to be a major storm impacting Okinawa in four or five days before heading towards Mainland China. There has been bad flooding in Germany, and in the western US heat and wild fires continue to be a problem. And the usual scattering of earthquakes, including a swarm on the California/Nevada border, and a half dozen or so volcanoes spewing ash, but none causing significant damage. Here’s a map of natural doom:
In the “doing it to ourselves” category the SARS-COV-2 pandemic continues to do a slow burn through the population lacking natural or artificial (vaccinated) antibodies. It’s hard to get a solid handle on just how dangerous some of the new variants are. The majority of infections are now the notorious “Delta” variant (B.1.617.2 – here’s more about variants then you want to know). It does seem to have a much higher transmission rate – the variants making the rounds last year and this spring had an R of around 2, “Delta” is probably well over 3. What that means is that for the original virus, one person would infect on average two other people. “Delta” seems that one infected person can infect between 3 and 4 people. Of course that doesn’t tell you anything about the consequences of being infected – as we know, a lot of people are asymptomatic, others crash. The statistics don’t seem to indicate that conclusively, but the virus seems to be spreading within younger populations. Of course, that can be an artifact of testing bias, and that a lot of older people have had more of an opportunity to be vaccinated (or survived the virus). The research papers I’ve seen are mixed; some indicate that existing antibodies/vaccines aren’t as effective, some say it’s no big deal. The truth is probably both 😛 – there is some reduction, but it’s not increasing mortality.
The media is of course excited about Delta. For Chatham County, Georgia (Savannah Area) a reporter was breathlessly saying the community transmission index “doubled since the end of June!” Technically true, it has gone from 50 to 98 between June 30 and July 14, but let’s put that in perspective: In January it was over 600 … so while the trend isn’t great as “delta” moves into the area with both cases and CTI, this isn’t something to freak out over. If you have natural or artificial antibodies, you’re in good shape. If you don’t and are an adult, you should get vaccinated unless you have a solid health reason that makes it risky. It’s as safe as any other vaccines out there (which are pretty safe all things considered).
There are a lot of unsettling geopolitical developments that do not bode well for the upcoming weeks. The situation in South Africa is out of control. This has huge implications across southern Africa, as some of the logistics and food distribution facilities looted the last few days are essential not just in South Africa but across the region. There is unrest in Cuba – how much is natural, and how much astro-turf from Miami, and where it is going is debatable. Haiti continues to be in turmoil, and the web of involvement in President Moise continues to expand. NATO continues the risky game of “poke the bear”, conducting provocative exercises across the Black Sea at the risk of goading the somewhat unstable Ukrainian regime in to taking another action in Eastern Ukraine that will result in Russia being forced to respond.
But at least Brittany now has her own lawyer now, so that’s nice.
Infrastructure resiliency is an important area of my research, and disruptions to infrastructure come from both natural and human actions. There is no need to mention the critical nature computers and networks play in modern society. The disruption to the essential Colonial Pipeline oil and gas distribution system got a lot of news a few weeks ago, and now the attack on the JBS food distribution company is causing disruptions and a lot of angst. Let’s look at three aspects of this: the impact of the disruptions themselves, the infrastructure security implications, and the role of both state sponsored and freelance cybercriminals.
First, the impact of the disruptions. Like with the Colonial Pipeline attacks, the JBS impacts should be transitory – but will probably end up being worse than it should be due to human behavior. Like the irrational pandemic inspired toilet paper runs last year, there will likely be a lot of spot shortages as people change their normal buying habits, creating a temporary supply shortage. Although modern logistics methods like warehousing-in-transit have reduced the safety margin, what people don’t think about is that supplies and distribution systems have slack build in to account for disruptions – and disruptions happen all the time due to maintenance, weather, and so forth. But that is all based on normal buying habits. When you horde or stockpile, you break that assumption, creating artificial shortages. Assuming the system is back online in the next day or so, price spikes and outages should be transient, but like disruptions from storms, may take a week or two to settle down. My guess is that if nothing breaks that shouldn’t, this will again have been a brief disruption.
As for the infrastructure implications, it’s an almost intransigent problem. It takes time to develop and deploy infrastructure. Even with fixed hardware, the firmware and software than runs on it takes time to develop, test, and deploy – and of course it is the ability to do remote upgrades and software changes that is the underlying cause of the problem in the first place. If you can access it to use it, much less upgrade it, you can probably hack it. The old DoD “Orange book” on computer security said the only secure computer was one that was unplugged with the hard drive removed. So while a lot can be done to improve security, ultimately there is no way to create a system that is both usable and completely secure against a determined, intelligent attacker. So like most things, the trick is to balance the two – maintain usability, but make it hard enough to keep out the amateurs, and have international standards, laws, and policies in place to deter and punish those who exploit system vulnerabilities.
And therein lies a key problem: governments use cybercriminals.
There is a love/hate, sometimes incestuous relationship between intelligence agencies, IT security companies, and cybercriminals. A not insignificant amount of the malware floating around was either developed, enhanced, or allowed to continue in play due to the action (or inaction) of intelligence agencies – including some well known episodes involving US intelligence agencies. Ironically, some of the most effective malware currently in circulation goes back to a hack of NSA and the release of their toolkit (ARS technica link). In addition, Agencies have been known to discover exploits, but because they are using them, don’t report them to operating system and software developers. IT and cyber security firms have been known to be complicit, in one at least one known case not fixing a hole until after No Such Agency had finished an operation requiring the exploit. And of course the need for computer virus protection, OS upgrades, cybersecurity consulting, etc. is a profitable business.
So it was remarkably hypocritical for President Biden to say that Russia bears responsibility for the hacks because the hackers (who in both cases seem to have only been after money) happened to be based there. Of course, President Putin didn’t really help matters when he “joked” …
“Hackers are free people, like artists: (if) they are in a good mood, they (get) up in the morning and draw. So hackers, if they wake up and read that something is happening in interstate relations and if they are patriotic, then they begin to make their contribution,” Vladimir Putin said.
Of course he went on to deny that Russia was sponsoring or exploiting hacking. While there have been cyberattacks in Russia, the security services pretty much hunts the criminals down and kills them. It is clear to these guys that if you’re going to do this, do it elsewhere. I’m not advocating that kind of quick “justice”, and the tolerance of domestic criminals who keep their crime offshore is something nations-states shouldn’t do, but in fairness it is absolutely not limited to Russia; the US is infamous for it with respect to other kinds of crimes, particularly essential and profitable but environmentally damaging enterprises.
In summary, treating cyber criminals as serious, dangerous criminals no matter where they are based or where their crimes are committed, is essential. Today one can kill with a computer by harming cyber infrastructure almost as easily as one can kill with a bomb. Therefore, as has been attempted with mixed success with nuclear weapons and biological warfare, nation-states need to put together frameworks to limit and prosecute the use of computer viruses and cyber attacks. That will be difficult – the system of international law and norms of behavior is in shambles (in no small part due to US actions over the last two decades, but that’s another story). The US, which pioneered these techniques, should take the lead in renouncing them and working with the international community to address the problem rather than hypocritically screaming about it in public all the while creating and using them in private (the US approach), or joking about it in public, making sure it doesn’t happen at home, but allowing it to occur elsewhere (the Russian approach).
Economics: The economic implications of this kind of global shipping is often hidden. During the studies of the deepening of the Savannah harbor, and periodically since, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) trots out economic analyses of the “benefits” of the port. I’ll be blunt: these “analyses” are misleading – even bogus. One key problem is that all the numbers about local jobs or regional impact overlooks the lost manufacturing jobs, and the distortion of the US economy from a balanced producer/consumer economy in to a consumer dominant economy supported by a service sector. This is one of the factors behind the increasing levels of disparity in income in the US, and the depressed middle class sector in the country: those middle class, manufacturing and repair service type jobs disappear since cheap goods means it is more “cost effective” to import and replace rather than repair them when they fail or break. Of course, it is only “cost effective” if you ignore the resources wasted in a throw-away world, but that is a different issue.
You’ll notice when GPA reports statistics, they talk about containers and tonnage exported, rather than the overall value of imports vs exports. If you run the numbers that way, billions of dollars a year (and therefore tens of thousands of manufacturing and related jobs) flow out of the US to foreign countries, some hostile such as China. In other words, China is treating the US like an extractive colony – but the US goes along with it because US based companies profit from the somewhat lower retail prices, even though the average person sees only marginal benefits. Ten or even 20% lower prices doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are either out of work or working lower paying jobs, or your taxes are high to cover social costs. You have to look at the whole society impacts – not just narrow sectors.
One of the reasons behind the American Revolution was that Great Britain restricted certain kinds of manufacturing in the Colonies. It makes sense from a colonial/control standpoint: extract the raw materials, force the colonies to buy the finished products. That way the net value is not equal – money flows out of the colony and enriches the mother country, and makes the colony dependent on them. China has been doing this to the US for at least three decades now – and we’re actually cooperating with our own subjugation.
Resiliency: Lost in the discussions over the ports and global commerce discussions are the social stability aspects, in that a mostly consumer based economy is vulnerable and ultimately unsustainable. The COVID pandemic came very close to crashing the US economy and even stability of the society. Critical supplies such as plastic tubing almost ran out because no US companies make them, and the global system of moving goods and supplies came to a standstill with the quarantines and shutdowns. In the past a disruption might cause a rise in prices, but many critical goods are no longer manufactured in the US. The loss of supply lines – be it due to natural disaster or geopolitical instability – can rapidly spin in to a crisis since there is diminished or nonexistent ability to replace the lost sources of those goods.
Underlying all of this is a philosophical meta-question: what is the purpose of an economy? In the US, the purpose of the economy is primarily geared to create shareholder profit. Human factors such as the dignity of work, providing a sustainable livelihood for the average person, and social stability are all lost in the pursuit of maximum quarterly profits. The celebration of the arrival of the Marco Polo is that distorted worldview writ large.
So for a variety of reasons, the global system of commerce that has evolved in to massive transfer of the manufacture of goods that could be made anywhere to a few areas like China (generally with exploited/oppressed workers), all in the name of increasing profit margins, has created a hidden global crisis that could for a variety of reasons trigger a collapse of the economy – with societal turmoil following close behind.
Rather than celebrating, at least we should be mourning, and better yet protesting if we had any sense.
Complex discussions like the situation in Ukraine are difficult when limited to 800-1000 word screeds even with links to other content. I’ve received some critical questions and feedback on the previous post, and they deserve answers – and that will take lots of words. I hope those who don’t like my positions on this topic will take some time to read and think about these replies. You may ultimately not agree, but I hope you don’t dismiss these arguments out of hand, and this helps you see that there is perhaps another legitimate side to this conflict that is not based on misinformation or devious Russian propaganda. So here goes …
Ultimately, most of the criticisms seem to be from a perspective based on what I feel is a misleading “periodization.” Periodization is a concept that foreign policy experts and historians use to define the relevant scope of time needed to understand a given issue or circumstance. In other words, when does history start for the purpose of an explanatory narrative around which we can formulate an appropriate course of action? Unfortunately, far too many people (such as our politicians and the vast majority of the so-called US “Russia experts” who say things like “dishonesty is in Russian DNA”) drag history along with them like Jacob Marley’s chains. This clinging on to the past ends up not informing the present, but contaminating it. Of course, the opposite can be just as true – if you abbreviate history too much, you risk losing needed context. Finding that balance is usually hard. But it is the first step in understanding our crisis in relations with Russia.
The key question is: Are Russian actions unprovoked, or are they a response to prior western actions?
Many of the critical replies I’ve received cite episodes from the Soviet era. But the Soviet Union is gone 30 years now. Is it valid to apply Soviet era actions to Modern Russia? I argue that by and large it is not, and we need to let the Soviet Union remain in the Dustbin of History. Unlike most foreign policy situations, in this case I think periodization is fairly straightforward: the breakup of the Soviet Union provides a reasonable starting point. It was messy in some ways but also a relatively “clean” slate in others with a new form of government, and an unusual opportunity to build a more open, democratic society with a new economic system that did not require the trauma of a hot war to initiate.
By 1991/1992, Russia was on its knees, and we had two options: help them stand up and join the western family of nations as an equal, integrated partner to try to overcome ghosts of the past, or try to maintain a superior position, keep Russia down, and prevent Russia from ever becoming a potential adversary again. It is obvious to me that the West, lead by the US, took that latter path. I think Russia tried at first to take the path of cooperation and integration, but in the face of the lack of Western acceptance felt it had to respond, and we have now reverted to tit for tat responses to various actions where each side takes a provocative action then uses the response as justification for further actions. But lets rewind the clock to 1991 and see how things evolved.
I read a recent comprehensive analysis that documents how hundreds of billions of dollars of assets were looted from the Former Soviet Republics (FSR) and transferred into the Western financial system. This looting of the FSR caused major distortions in both the economy and social fabric of Russia. On top of that, the US conducted a massive interference campaign in internal Russian politics. The Yeltsin campaign in 1996 was essentially run by the Clinton White House and Democrat operatives. I have some of the campaign materials from that election. Yeltsin was by then becoming a drunk, incompetent, corrupt, barely conscious figurehead. But he was rinsed through a Western style advertising campaign and made presentable. The level of fraud was epic, and the US (via IMF) ensured that the Russian Government got a loan to be able to pay wages and benefits just in time for the election. It is widely accepted that election was stolen with US assistance.
Russians have not forgotten this – with good reason. They also see how the US continues to pump money into “opposition” (either US friendly or simply disruptive) political parties, and US Diplomats are often seen openly and directly (and, btw, in violation of international norms) participating in political rallies. They also see how the US and international media pump up marginal figures like Navalny, and fuel divisive internal issues like LGBTQ rights to try to create internal turmoil. They also saw what happened in Ukraine, where the “transparent and honest elections” (per OSCE and PACE observers) in which the US did not like the outcome were overthrown in 2014 by a US instigated coup. Russia also learned a lesson that was quickly implemented in retaliation: social media can be used to rapidly inflame existing social divisions so as to create turmoil that can be used in the furtherance of external agendas.
From an international relationship perspective, when the Soviet Union was dissolved a number of new agreements were made as to the conduct of relations between the west, Russia, and the other FSR, and Russia was designated as the “successor state” to various arms control agreements made during Soviet times like ABM, IRBM, and so forth. Who violated them first? The answer is pretty clear: it was the west lead/pushed by the US.
During the 1990’s, Russian weapons development activities were at a standstill, and military deployments minimal. But despite the “peace”, US R&D actually accelerated in the fields of developing new strategic weapons, as well as expanded NATO eastward, and continued aggressive exercises and flights along the borders of Russia to which Russia could not respond. By the early 2000’s, and the election of Bush II, the US was arguably directly violating both the ABM and IRBM treaties. The west had clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and associated side agreements on NATO expansion, and was actively interfering in the elections in all of the FSR successor states, including gross interference in Ukraine (in direct violation of that agreement) as well as the previously noted interference in Russian internal politics.
Has Russia subsequently violated these agreements? Not sure that matters – if Party A abrogates an agreement, then Party B is generally no longer obligated to follow it, but let’s say for discussion purposes that Russia has subsequently violated these agreements. Would Russia have violated those agreements had the US not taken advantage of the situation and acted as it did? We will never know, but I suspect not. I have been to Russia and had extensive contacts in the international community throughout the key period of 1991 to 2014. At first there was a great deal of excitement at the opportunity to peacefully spin down the Cold War and join with the West in a constructive relationship. But as the 1990’s evolved into the mid 2000’s, that excitement turned to resentment within Russia.
That’s more extended background and the context (periodization) within which I view the situation. Now some answers to some specific questions I’ve received over the last day or so … questions (often consolidated or paraphrased) in bold:
But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile. — Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. — Senator (former Civil War General) Carl Shurtz, 1871
Hopefully everyone reading this is aware that tensions between the US and Russian governments are at the worst level in their 30 year history. If you include the Soviet Union, then global tensions are the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which you shouldn’t unless you mean the risk of peer-on-peer nuclear war; despite the fact that many in the US Government are blindly stuck in that mode of thinking, Modern Russia is definitely not the Soviet Union). While the Cuban Crisis is before my time, I was there during the late cold war, including the 1983 Able Archer incident.I feel the situation now is far more dangerous. During the Cold War, both sides wanted to avoid outright war, and made sure that conflicts that could lead to a war were defused. Although there were NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Targeting Strategy) on both sides, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was the rule of the day, and nuclear escalation was unthinkable except in response to a nuclear attack. Today that situation has changed. In a level of hubris that would make any writer of a Greek Tragedy green with envy, policy planners in the US now believe that tactical nuclear weapons can be used and contained to regional conflicts without risk to the US “homeland” or escalation to an all global exchange. This was the rationalization for the deployment of the W76-2 warhead, which I discussed in this post last year. I won’t repeat the insanity of that move other than to say that it totally ignores Russian doctrine and makes the world a far more dangerous place. And it has painted the US into a tactical and doctrinal corner that can only end poorly. One key reason for the relative stability of the Cold war is that each side would rather lose a conventional conflict or crisis that lay outside its borders rather than risk nuclear war. In the current Ukraine crisis, that safeguard no longer seems to exist for several reasons.
As always, you need background and context to understand this situation, which means lots of words. I wrote a piece on this back during the impeachment circus. Even that longish overview glossed over several topics such as the vital gas pipelines that cross Ukraine, and the nearly completed Nordstream 2 pipeline system that further bypasses it. Those gas pipelines are of increased importance given the connections to the Ukraine energy sector by key people in the Democratic Party, as well as the fact that the US wants to maintain influence and control over Europe’s energy resources. It argues that European dependence on cheaper Natural Gas from Russia creates a security risk for Europe. Of course, one could also argue that dependence on US LNG (which costs many times that of pipeline gas) creates an equally dangerous dependence on the US, given it’s predilection for sanctions as a weapon, as well as reduces European competitiveness in the global economy by more costly energy sources. So the bottom line is that while much is made about Democracy or the sanctity of national borders (something the US seems to have a highly selective view about, given allies like Saudi Arabia), like many if not most things this is at heart about economics and the control of resources.
There is so much misinformation and misleading perspectives (propaganda?) about the current crisis in the US and western media. You’ve been told that Russia has built up considerable forces on the border of Ukraine. That’s absolutely true. But did you know that it could be argued that the US and NATO started this round of escalation by moving nearly 40,000 troops into countries bordering Russia as part of an “exercise” (Defender 2021, which is running in conjunction with other ongoing operations)? And that Ukraine, believing that NATO will support their adventures, has been moving forces to the border of the disputed regions for weeks to take advantage of the exercise, has been shelling civilian targets, and otherwise violating the Minsk 2 agreements and associated cease fires that were meant to try to bring a negotiated settlement to the crisis? Did you know Ukraine effectively declared war on Russia last month? And that Ukrainian officials have actually intimated they are hoping for a provocation that will trigger a Russian reaction, knowing they will lose badly in any conflict, just to draw in US and NATO forces? In context, the Russians moving forces to their border are perfectly reasonable. I doubt the US would merely watch if a hostile Mexico mobilized their military, then allowed China to put tens of thousands of troops on the Rio Grande …
The current situation is especially risky because the present Ukrainian government feels it can provoke Russia since the US “has its back.” They have good reason to believe that – the current President and other US leaders have have business connections to Ukrainian oligarchs and have publicly stated their support. Many in the US Government, coming from a neoconservative background, want to “put Russia in its place” and expand US economic hegemony by restricting European options with respect to energy as noted above. Others in the Democratic party are angry over the mostly mythical “election interference” in 2016 and 2020, hypocritically ignoring the tens of billions of dollars the US has spent “promoting” (and subverting when it doesn’t suit US interests) democracy in Russia and Ukraine. So there is pressure to “look and act strong.” Yet strategically and tactically a US/NATO intervention would probably not go well, and may well lead to the use of nuclear weapons unless the US would be willing to lose a conventional conflict. And since the nuclear threshold has been lowered with systems like the W76-2, and the US fundamentally does not understand (or believe) Russian nuclear doctrine, the US might think it can use tactical devices without a corresponding use against the US. It is almost certainly wrong.
A discussion of the “correlation of forces” in Ukraine from a military perspective is complex. Sober analysts on both sides realize that the public pronouncements of both sides are optimistic for public consumption, the reality is that while probably not as simple as they might want it to be, Russia could easily wipe out the Ukrainian military (and supporting NATO units if they chose to help) if the conflict were to be kept confined to that theater. If it became a wider scale conflict, Russia could not easily (and by all indications has absolutely no desire to) “take over Europe” militarily. It could very probably not only successfully defend itself against NATO but inflict considerable pain should the conflict widen. Here the risks are enormous: Russia would be on the front lines, and militarily it would be inevitable that strikes would be made on Russian soil. However … Russia now has the ability to strike the US “homeland” with conventional weapons as well as infrastructure and financial system assets, which it might well do. How would Americans react to that? Badly and jingoistically, I would assume. But most likely Russia would not strike the US homeland directly out of fear of escalation unless serious casualties were inflicted inside Russia itself, and try to keep the conflict European by only attacking US assets in Europe or other theaters like Near East Asia. This raises the question of what the US would do at that point: would it accept the loss of Ukraine and a frozen conflict or try to “win” using tactical nuclear weapons? If the latter, which some in the US military and State Department advocate, it would almost inevitably result in a global nuclear exchange if a nuclear strike of any kind were to occur on or near Russian soil (per clearly stated Russian doctrine). A frightening but all too plausible scenario.
But will the US go to war over Ukraine? The Ukrainians believe so. However, while I think the Russiphobia in Washington knows few bounds, I’m not so sure. It would actually suit US interests just fine to have Ukraine start a war with Russia and lose. Russia would occupy Donbass (the disputed region – there are no signs Russia wants anything much to do with the Nazi infested realms west of the Dniper). This would be an epic angst-fest for the Washington Elites, and would likely completely alienate Europe from Russia economically. The new “Iron Curtain” (this time raised by the US) would likely ensure European subservience and dependence on the US for the foreseeable future. The remaining 70 percent or so of Ukraine would almost certainly be incorporated in NATO, and the Military Industrial Complex (which already sucks up over half of the US discretionary budget) would enjoy a massive influx of even more money. Win-win. Well, except for the vast majority of people in Ukraine who just want to live their lives, or the majority of Americans who don’t own Lockheed-Martin stock and selfishly want things like health care, roads, and schools. Russia too sees benefits to a short, sharp conflict that “resolves” the Donbass situation. It has been festering for years, with ethnically Russian speaking people caught in the crossfire of this unnecessary conflict. Russia also seems to be giving up on any relationships with the west, and especially with the US. So the three sides – the US, Ukraine, and Russia – have all pretty much given up on a peaceful solution; one of the three actively wants war (Ukraine), one wants a war but likely won’t back its nominal ally (US), and the other (Russia) isn’t willing to be intimidated and thinks it can win if it has to.
Unknown in all of this is what the other regional players (especially Turkey and Iran) would do. And of course there is the China wildcard – no question of their military involvement, but it would present them with many geopolitical and economic opportunities. An already unstable world will become even more dangerous.
During the late Cold War, there were a number of analysts who actually understood both the Soviet Union as well as the Russian People. Today, there seem to be far fewer US policymakers who have such an understanding. The public misunderstanding is even worse. There are certainly no voices like the late Stephen Cohen trying to foster an understanding of them. As I noted in a previous post, we have a bad situation where those voices that are heard are often personally biased. Worse, a situation has been created that you can’t even cite many authoritative Russian sources or contrary opinions (even to point out their errors, much less when they have a valid point to make) without being deplatformed and silenced in the primary modes of communications these days, the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter. There are several commentaries I would love to link to here to try to get across the profound misunderstandings that Americans have about what is going on in Russia and vice versa. I can’t – this post would be blocked. And, yet, the “country” that the above quotes speak of protecting is either unaware of this impending catastrophe, or else actively cheering it on under the influence of a “news” media that largely parrots official government statements with virtually no critical thought, much less investigation or context.
So in (not so) short, we are in a very dangerous situation, and the burden for stepping back from the edge falls squarely on the US. It is well past time to declare in no uncertain terms that this government (that of the United States of America), is on a morally and ethically wrong path in its relations with Russia, one that is in violation of a wide swath of agreements and assurances, and from a purely practical standpoint is dangerous and puts global stability and the lives of millions at risk. So what to do?
First, the US needs to stop baiting Russia, and accept it is a world player. Drop the moralizing – while the US had moral credibility during the Cold War, it has squandered that precious advantage and needs to rebuild it by adhering to international norms of behavior before it calls out others. IMNSHO, the simple fact is that the situation in Donbass and Crimea between Russia and Ukraine was largely created and inflamed by the US for crass geopolitical reasons. There is no direct US strategic security interest, and if it were not for US backing, the parties would have sorted this out long ago. Second, the US needs to stop trying to control the world. Those days were fleeting, the US mismanaged that window in the 1990’s, made it worse in the 2000’s, and it needs to accept – and more importantly, influence and benefit – a multi-polar world, or be left behind. Third, the US needs to honestly and seriously create a internal situation where it is not so dependent on exploiting a global economic system that it can’t control. That last will be the most difficult, but is the most essential, because that fragile system creates the circumstances where the US feels it needs to run everything or risk destruction.
I know that many of you are worried about the environment, energy, the pandemic, civil rights, or whatever the media inflamed issue of the day seems to be. None of that matters if we blow ourselves up over artificially generated, great power gamesmanship and selfish, hubris driven geopolitical conflicts. Russia absolutely isn’t perfect, or righteous, but in this case it is the US that is in the wrong and has been for some time.
It’s been super busy and I’ve been swamped trying to reset things after major changes my organizational landscape, but we continue to have the usual share of doom stalking the Earth: it’s hurricane season in the southern hemisphere, there have been a couple of significant earthquakes. The SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continues to be doing fine (humans not so much), and of course there is something happening in Washington DC today …
There are three active tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere, two “invest” areas, and another invest area in the Philippines(!). Most of these are fairly weak systems, but Cyclone Eloise has just made landfall in Madagascar and is headed towards the African Mainland. The forecast models, as well as the official forecasts from MetoFrance (who are responsible for this area) and the US Joint Typhoon Warning Center, show it strengthening into a hurricane before the second landfall. Here’s the impact estimate …
There has been a rash of earthquakes causing moderate damage over the last week. The two most significant are a series of quakes in San Juan province of Argentina, and a major earthquake causing significant damage near Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nearly 100 are known dead, while humanitarian situation among survivors in Indonesia is becoming of concern. Damage in Argentina seems mostly confined to infrastructure.
COVID continues a slow burn through the population. It has been over a year since the first warnings were raised, and I have a longish post under construction looking back on the early predictions, as well as where we seem to be going from here. Hopefully will get posted in the next day or so, reviewing some of the latest data. It’s not good, and while it’s not the black death, it is still killing a lot of people who would not otherwise have died, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Period. That said, there are some interesting trends in mortality from other causes (such as influenza, which is almost non existent this year).
Due to the inauguration, the normal weekly data update won’t be out until tomorrow, which will give us our first mostly complete look at the 2020 mortality data, so the post will likely be on Friday. To rant once again, there is NO REAL TIME DATA ON COVID19! The “death counters” on TV are bogus. Johns Hopkins (the source most are using) is doing a great job, but the daily totals, especially of mortality, are very noisy estimates. This is a slow moving disaster; it takes a couple of seeks for all of the mortality data to be compiled.
It still astonishes me that people can’t seem to get grip on this thing, and how politicized it has become. Of course, it shouldn’t; sadly the reaction of people and what policies they want to enact are pretty predictable based on party. And like most things a balanced approach would do far better than either extreme. We’ll see how the “new” Administration does. Speaking of which …
The Biden Administration takes over today. A lot of things will likely become more orderly, and while their domestic polices are not accepted by almost half of the population, the rollout and implementation will be well organized given the long government pedigrees of the President and his various appointees. And given the fact the US media is largely on their side, stuff will get done and things will certainly appear to be better. But I’m extremely concerned about Foreign Policy. This group, lead by Blinken, Rice, Powers, and the new torturer in chief, Avril Haines, are responsible for inflaming many of the world’s trouble spots such as in the Middle East (especially Syria and Libya). They are largely responsible for the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, and advocate policies that are likely to create further dangerous conflicts. Unfortunately, much of that will be “under the radar” as the US public and media focus on the domestic situation.
Administrative note: I’m no longer cross posting any politically focused posts on either Facebook or Twitter. The environment just isn’t conducive for rational discussion, and I don’t want the Enki FB page to become yet another site where people I don’t know engage in poo throwing contests 😛 … I’m happy to discuss the political implications of various doom we face (and most of them do involve politics), but we need to keep the anger and emotion to a minimum, and try to keep things based on all the facts (not just the ones that support some particular point of view). All that said, the new year is starting off much better (organizationally, if not funding wise) than the last, and the reorganization should finally start to be seen in better stuff on the Patreon page and web sites any day now 🙂