Signaling virtue, or just ignorance?

With PTC1/Alex on the prowl I didn’t have a chance to comment on this, but the City of Savannah posted this photograph last week to signal the start of Pride Month. Notice anything? Yep. The Ukrainian Flag is backwards.

How to signal your ignorance.

Sadly, ignorance/incompetence isn’t just limited to the City of Savannah … here’s a screen capture from a Pentagon briefing a week or so ago. The fact this briefing was for Defense Industry contractors looking to cash in on the $40 Billion windfall masquerading as aid puts this firmly in the “you can’t make this stuff up” realm …

Assistant SecDef for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia Laura Cooper (left), Defense Secretary (center), Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (right), with upside down Ukrainian Flags.

The Savannah thing is absurd. The Progress Pride flag I understand (it’s a domestic policy issue, the City has an advocacy office and well known positions, etc.), but why is the City displaying the Ukrainian Flag? Did the City put together a policy justification for why the City Government, as representatives of the Citizens of Savannah, should be signalling its support for either side of this war? Does the Mayor, anyone on the City Council, or anyone in City Government have the necessary background and expertise to understand the situation, or are they just jumping on a popular bandwagon? And even if this was a carefully thought through policy, didn’t anybody bother to look up how to properly display the Ukrainian Flag? Ten seconds on Wikipedia would have done the trick. The blue band is on top if flown as a flag, and on the left if displayed as a banner.

As any reader of this blog knows, I strongly feel the situation in Ukraine is a tragic mess, one we bear significant responsibility for starting and inflaming. I think that sending weapons in to this conflict is dangerous, and ultimately causing more harm than good. Expressing support for the present Government of Ukraine by flying its flag is not as simple as some might think. I have to wonder if the Mayor of Savannah is aware of what senior officials of the Ukrainian Government have said about people of color (much less, given the Progress Pride flag now displayed in the rotunda, the LGBTQ community). Almost certainly not.

But that’s not really the point of this post. If you do feel that support of the Ukrainian Government is justified, at least fly their flag right side up.

As for the Pentagon, I don’t even know where to start. Whenever I have been involved in activities at this level annoying but essential protocol officers were scurrying around making sure flags were right side up, seating was correct, and that I didn’t cause yet another international incident by asking for ketchup at a state dinner thrown by the President of France like that first time. That the DoD official responsible for Ukraine didn’t instantly recognize the problem is simply unbelievable, and for the SECDEF to be seen surrounded by upside-down flags is a major national embarrassment.

This is sadly yet another symptom of how US Diplomacy has collapsed over the last thirty years. This 2020 RAND corporation study (link) describes elements of that decline, but I think there is a deeper problem with the overall level of education in the US, ignorance about the rest of the world, and the self-centered, “exceptionalist” view of that world. Fẹmi Akọmọlafẹ, a journalist from Ghana, wrote the following recently comparing the competence of foreign diplomats from the major powers:

Western officials, on the other hand, attack the world as haughty, naughty, ill-mannered, ill-educated, uncultured, provincial, and narcissistic imbeciles. They lack the elementary decorum necessary to engage peers in respectful manners. Ok, superciliousness, fueled by racist arrogance, might partly explain why they behave so, but we cannot discount the possibilities that they simply lack the education, the culture, and the home training required for civilized behavior, especially in encounters with other cultures. The question needs to be asked how the Collective West ended up with the current gaggle of clowns holding positions of responsibility? … It didn’t use to be like this. The West was once great. I should know; I studied there.

Harsh, but an interesting perspective. A key difference between the US and some major countries is that in the US the top levels of the State Department are political appointees. Having watched career US diplomats first hand, there are some fantastically knowledgeable people working in that field, able to balance US interests with an understanding of history and a concern for the legitimate interests of other peoples. But unfortunately that does not extend to political appointees, who by and large lack those skills and tend to view everything through the lens of domestic politics. It’s a complex problem (yeah, I say that a lot), and one a serious President and Congress would try to address and find a better balance between political accountability, the ability of a President to direct foreign policy, the long term interests of the US, and the essential skills, knowledge, and experience that only comes from years – even decades – of experience.

PS – Please don’t use this space to debate the Progress Pride or Pride flags and domestic policy issues. Such posts will be deleted unless they are respectful and relevant to the Ukraine/Foreign Policy realms.

Wait, it’s not Palm Sunday?! Well, it’s complicated …

For the Western Churches that trace their lineage back through the Roman Catholic Church, today (10 April 2022) is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. But for roughly 30% of the Christian World, Palm Sunday isn’t until next week (17 April). Why is a fascinating story that involves astronomy and geophysics, politics, and theology. Here’s a few notes for those who are curious …

A Roman Kalend (Calendar) stone …

At the time of Christ, the calendar in use was the Julian Calendar. Julius Caesar himself ordered it into use in 45 B.C to clean up a number of issues surrounding the old Roman calendar. His new calendar was designed with the help of Greek astronomers (who were among the best of the time) and by any measure it was a big advance, more closely matching the actual length of the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, which is 365.24219 days. The Julian Calendar is pretty close to that, 365.25 days. It did that by having a year that is 365 days for most years, but inserting an extra day in the month of February every four years. The problem is that over time, even that .00781 of a day adds up, so the calendar “drifts” by about one day every 128 years. They were aware of the problem but figured they could fix it later, Of course, like many problems politicians say will get fixed later, later never came, possibly due to stabby senators …

By the 1500’s that drift had added up to nearly 10 days, causing the calendar to be out of sync with the seasons and causing problems with the calculation of the date of Easter. So Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar developed. It’s not really that different from the Julian Calendar, but tweaks things by making the average length of the year 365.2425 days (only .00031 days off, or one day of drift every 3225 years). It does this by dropping the leap year sometimes:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.
– US Naval Observatory FAQ.

In the Catholic world, the Gregorian Calendar came in to use in 1582. But while Gregory XIII was still called Pontifex Maximus, he was no Pater Patriae or Imperator like Julius … and by then the Western World was fragmented. The Roman Catholic Church had split off from the Eastern Churches in the Great Schism of 1054, and the Protestant Revolutions of the 1400’s had caused a major fracturing of Western Christianity. Most Protestant countries rejected the new “Papist” calendar even though it was technically more accurate, and more in sync with the seasons. The Orthodox Churches simply ignored it as just another Papal heresy to add to the increasingly long list 😛 . However, over time, the Protestant countries created their own, so called “Improved Calendar” that just happened to be identical to the Gregorian Calendar, so under whatever name by the 1700’s most of the western world had adopted the Gregorian Calendar. In the early 1900’s, most nominally Orthodox countries had adopted a split system: a civil calendar based on the Gregorian calendar, but the religious calendar and thus the calculation of the dates of Nativity (Christmas) and Pascha (Easter) stayed on the Julian Calendar.

So the situation today is that the Western Churches (Catholics and Protestants) use the Gregorian Calendar to calculate Easter, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, Antiochian, the Orthodox Church in America, and so forth) use the Julian Calendar to calculate Pascha (Easter).

Today there is a 13 day difference between the Julian and Gregorian Calendars. Because Pascha/Easter are calculated based on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (on 20/21 March), that means the dates sometimes fall on the same day, but in other years can be up to a month apart! In 2016 Easter was March 23rd on the Gregorian Calendar, but Pascha was on May 1st Gregorian (April 18th Julian). This year (2022) they are only a week apart.

Nobody really disagrees with the fact the Julian Calendar has drifted, and the Gregorian Calendar is more accurate. Why haven’t the Orthodox Churches updated the calendar? Worse, why have some (like Constantinople) switched for the daily calendar but not for calculating Pascha? A key reason it remains unsolved involves the way the Churches are governed and how councils that can decide that sort of thing are convened. The Orthodox Church suffered two major disruptions in the early 1900’s, the Communist takeover of Russia (which is the largest Orthodox Church in numbers), and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of the secular Turkish regime. The situation in Turkey has become even more complex, and the Orthodox Church there nearly destroyed by the increasingly oppressive Islamic forces under Erdogan. There have been some attempts at convening a council but some complex politics have gotten in the way such as the growing Schism between Istanbul (Constantinople) and Moscow, and interference in Church affairs by secular authorities. But that’s a long. complicated mess … but the bottom line is in the Orthodox world, where things move slowly anyway, the mechanisms to fix things like the calendar problem aren’t working.

So that’s a bit of history. To wrap up, here are “Leonid and Friends” doing a fantastic cover of Chicago’s classic, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” This group is amazing – the musicians are scattered across Russia and Ukraine, working together even during COVID and the ongoing conflicts. They also did a session with Arturo Sandoval doing a trumpet solo on “Street Player”. Well worth exploring …

Flirting with Armageddon: is #Ukraine leading to nuclear war?

Yesterday a Pew Research poll was released that indicated a stunning 35% of those polled, roughly equal percentages in each political party, said that the US should intervene in Ukraine even if it risked a nuclear war (link to poll). Indeed, many politicians are advocating policies that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia such as a “no fly” zone or even direct military intervention by NATO or NATO countries individually.

I had a short discussion with Nate Hagens about this subject on his excellent podcast, “Frankly …” (link to podcast). This post is some additional background and thoughts to support that discussion. I hope you’ll give it a listen if you have time, and read on and consider that we may well be entering, and living through, the most dangerous period in human history, on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.

In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:

  1. Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
  2. I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
  3. Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.

I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.

Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.

Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.

Castle Bravo test, 15 Megaton thermonuclear test in March, 1954.

As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.

In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.

Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.

So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.

A Warning about Propaganda and the conflict in Ukraine

We’re seeing an increasing drumbeat of horrible stories out of the war zone, such as today’s “breaking news” of a bombing of a hospital in Mariupol. The stories you are seeing in the Western media blaming Russia are matched with stories in the Russian media showing atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian military and associated militias against their own people. Which are true? Probably elements of both. Which are lies? Yeah, you guessed it: probably elements of both.

There is only one truth of this: War is utterly horrific for those caught in the middle. Unfortunately, those horrors are often used as propaganda tools. Perhaps sometimes it’s justified, but you have to be very careful; in this case, it’s suicidal.

During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, there were heart-rending stories about Iraqi soldiers removing babies from incubators and leaving them on the floor to die. Just one problem: it wasn’t true; in fact, the key “witness” was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family (Link to LA Times sort-of not really walkback). Now, the Iraqis did lots of horrible things during the war. But that particular story (like the WMD stories in 2003) wasn’t truthful, although it was very effective in mobilizing popular and legislative support for the war.

I’m not saying the hospital bombing story isn’t real (it certainly is, although who did it may be in some doubt), but I am about to say it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t Iraq, or even Nazi Germany in World War II. The stakes are far higher, and the situation more risky.

In short, DON’T BE STAMPEDED IN TO SUPPORTING DANGEROUS, POTENTIALLY CIVILIZATION ENDING POLICIES BASED ON HEARTBREAKING STORIES!

Even if the incident is what it appears, the harsh but vital question becomes, is intervention worth the risk of a global nuclear war? This is a massive policy failure no matter how you look at it. Despite the rhetoric, there were no red lines on our part that said to Russia “this and no further” like there are with the NATO countries. Our credibility on that isn’t on the line.

We can argue over past policy all day. It is well known that I think that had we not been interfering, pumping weapons in, and giving Ukraine reason to believe we would intervene so that they felt no need to compromise, while simultaneously creating enough strategic ambiguity that we would not intervene so that Russia made the calculation they did, things would have gone very differently (as in probably no war at all). But it’s too late for that now. All we can do is not make things worse. Given how bad it is, that’s a hard thing to say.

Was this taken yesterday, last year, five years ago? November 2014? By VO Svoboda’s photos.

We simply cannot allow this to escalate into a direct US-Russia confrontation – there is just too much danger of a nuclear war. Then none of it matters. With this incident you’re hearing even more talk of a no-fly zone. And the warheads on TV are saying we can pull it off. They are wrong: a no-fly zone would be not just a step down the road to nuclear Armageddon, it would be a full-out sprint for the cliff. Even continuing to pump in military aid is only making the situation more dangerous, inflaming tensions, and getting innocent people killed. There is really only one thing we can do. Push Ukraine to negotiate, shut off the weapons flow, and rebuild the Iron Curtain 2.0.

Yes, that means sacrificing Ukraine.

I know what that means, but the alternatives at this point are worse, not only for the people of Ukraine, but the world, with an economic system on the verge of catastrophic collapse, much less the nuclear threat. Some will say we will be betraying the people of Ukraine, but really that betrayal happened a long time ago. We also betrayed the people of Russia, starting in the mid 1990’s – but nobody seems to want to talk about that. Again, from the standpoint of what to do in the next hours, days and months, it doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to stabilize this situation, fast, or it’s going to end in an outright US-Russia military confrontation, and no matter how you game it, that almost always goes nuclear.

Yes, it’s that dangerous.

About my position on Ukraine: what war is like

Have you ever been in a war zone?  Have you ever crossed the front lines in a major city, passing a pile of rubble with a child’s toy nearby, the decaying foot of a woman protruding, knowing from the smell and setting what lies underneath?  Have you ever visited a peaceful Christian village that may have lived under a dictatorship but was at least protected with families and a growing middle class, and later found it destroyed by a radical group our government trained, the people slaughtered, their daughters enslaved, all as part of an effort to overthrow that harsh but stable government?  Ever regain consciousness, wracked with pain, realizing you’ve been thrown through the air from a terrorist bomb that probably killed everyone around you?

I know damn well what war is like – I’ve been in them on four continents. And it haunts me.  If there is any truth in war it is that innocent people caught in the middle pay the highest price. War is something to be avoided – and that requires understanding why they start. Yes, there are circumstances where war is justified, but starting them – or triggering them by goading others in to them – should be a last resort, not just another policy option.  Avoiding wars – or properly prosecuting them if we have to – requires understanding the other side.

Understanding isn’t agreement. Understanding isn’t justification. Don’t doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is catastrophically wrong.  But it is understandable when viewed from their perspective. Understanding that is essential to create good policy and solve problems.

Putin isn’t Hitler, and the comparisons to 1930’s Europe are way overblown on many levels.  It’s a dangerous and toxic analogy because once you invoke it there is no need for further discussion: the other side is evil and must be destroyed.  Make no mistake, Russia under Putin is oppressive.  But as far as I know Russia isn’t engaged in genocide, their ideology (while it does have Russian  supremacist elements) is primarily based on power and control of resources, not on some insane vision of a pure future based on the annihilation of other people.  The rhetoric has become increasingly disturbing all around, and this doesn’t help. Russia isn’t even engaging in human rights abuses and supporting dangerous ideologies that rise to the level of, say, our good friends Saudi Arabia. So stop it with the Hitler comparisons.

Russia and Putin sure as hell aren’t warm and fuzzy. My key point is had we conducted ourselves differently, I feel Russia would have evolved over time into a more open democratic society.  Putin and Russia had pursued a fairly pragmatic foreign policy until recent years – it didn’t become openly hostile and expansionist until pushed beyond red lines they stated well in advance. Again, by refusing to discuss and consider accommodations to Russia’s reasonable requests over the last 30 years, we created a situation where Russia felt it had little option but to upgrade an existing conflict (the conflict the West has been escalating against Russia actively for at least 15 of those 30  years) from an asymmetric low level conflict to a full blown kinetic shooting war.   In short, the war didn’t start last week, last year, or even in 2014. It started in 1991.

One map making the rounds … pulled from a pro-Russian site.

Some have said that I’m echoing Russian Propaganda (while themselves often echoing Western Propaganda). Well, if the Kremlin says the sky is blue that doesn’t make it wrong; If something is true, it is true, and the fact that the West is dismissive of it is potentially a reason behind the aggression. That doesn’t justify the aggression, but it makes it understandable. I probably do overplay the Russian point of view – even when I disagree with it – because I am so frustrated it is not given the attention it deserves because even if we don’t believe, they either do, or are using it as a negotiating tactic, and if we don’t address it the problems can’t be solved. As one example, reflexively saying “there are no Nazis running Ukraine” just because Russia is exaggerating their role denies the fact that Eastern Europe hasn’t ever really come to terms with that past, and in fact there are some pretty unsavory elements who need to be rooted out. That’s not justification for the invasion – but it is an indictment of our policies that supported and encouraged groups like Right Sector and Azoz.

This all boils down to understanding and developing sane policies in a very dangerous and unstable world, especially understanding why those who do things we don’t like do them. Figuring out why people they act the way they do – and realistically assessing our responsibility and role in creating conditions that contribute to those actions – is an utterly essential part of that process.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra: #Ukraine and the danger of historical analogs

I didn’t really care for Star Trek: Next Generation most of the time, but every now and then it had worthy episodes. One of the best was “Darmok,” where Picard encounters a race that communicates largely with metaphors (link to Memory Alpha). The Universal Translator was able to translate the literal words, but unless you know the cultural references and history of the Tamarans, they are meaningless. This made communications almost impossible.

Of course, we communicate the same way, far more than we realize. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language you quickly learn (sometimes the hard way!) that every language has local idioms, phrases that have a figurative meaning far beyond their literal translation. In addition, we often communicate complex concepts by referencing some common cultural phenomena. The Bible used to be a key binding element in our society, today movies and TV are far more likely to be used. Saying “It’s not my fault!” in a certain tone of voice has a lot more meaning to someone who has seen the original Star Wars movie than someone not familiar with that film.

These metaphors can be a useful and fast way of conveying information. History is also used as a metaphor to quickly convey someone’s position or viewpoint on a subject. Invoking Munich, for example, conveys a flood of concepts: hubris, compromise with evil, etc. The problem is that used inappropriately or taken too literally, it can misrepresent a situation. The past isn’t always a good guide to the present, and the nuances of the situation matter, often a lot. Images like Munich and the Invasion of Poland, which has been invoked a lot in the last 72 hours, intentionally convey a lot of emotion along with meaning. But are they accurate depictions of the current crisis? Or are they designed more to manipulate than inform?

I highly recommend two books on the Cuban Missile Crisis for those interested in how decisions are made behind the scenes in a crisis (well, used to be; not so sure the process works so well with the last few Administrations.). The first (links to Amazon) is “One Hell of a Gamble“, the second is “The Kennedy Tapes,” which contains actual transcripts of the meetings in the White House during the crisis. One interesting thread is how the participants used metaphors and references to shared historical events like Munich, Pearl Harbor, and so forth, and how these events haunted the decision making. Would compromise with Khrushchev be seen as a new Munich? Would no-notice military action on Cuba to destroy the missiles be seen as a Pearl Harbor type sneak attack by the US, hurting our credibility? What was Khrushchev thinking? The participants struggle with all this, and discussed how much (or little) those events were similar to the crisis in which they found themselves.

If there is any common thread to this blog and the message I try to convey, it is this: the world is hideously complex, and it can be very dangerous to try to over simplify situations, or crowbar a difficult concept into a simple sound bite or 140 character Tweet. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy.

Shaka. When the walls fell.

Beware of those who try to make things black and white, or overly similar to the past. Metaphor only gets you so far. Make those who say Russia is wrong, and their actions unjustified, prove it, and treat them as skeptically as you should those who argue Russia is in the right. And realize the truth is probably somewhere in between … and that whatever the parties do, it should be always with an eye towards long term international stability and peace in the interests of all of the parties (including the innocent people caught in the middle), and not just expedient political measures based on domestic concerns.

#Russia, #Ukraine, and Carl Schurz

As I write this (5:30am Tuesday) it seems Russian forces are moving into the areas of eastern Ukraine that declared independence in 2014. This is likely the prelude to the ultimate storm, depending on where these forces ultimately deploy, and how Ukrainian forces react. I suspect the more ultra-nationalist elements within the Ukrainian armed forces will open fire and trigger a violent “shock and awe” exercise by Russia. Domestically, the posturing is well underway, and before the military situation escalates further and dominates the discussions, I’d like to say a few words about patriotism.

Vladimir Vladimirovich setting the next phase of events in motion. Official Kremlin Photo.

I’ve written before about Civil War General (later Senator and Secretary of the Interior) Carl Schurz. His most famous remark is probably related to a toast by Commodore Stephen Decatur, and while often abbreviated, is vital to repeat in whole: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” On these pages are a lot of words that, to a politically biased or casual reader, might seem to support Russia in general and Putin specifically. I’ve spent my life as an analyst, and my primary role is to understand situations from an unbiased perspective. That is often uncomfortable – people love to hear about the flaws and mistakes of the “other,” but really don’t like looking in the mirror. It is especially difficult when the “other” isn’t the most savory of characters, and has some problematic aspects. But the truth is the truth, and we owe it to ourselves and the future to hold ourselves to fixed standards without regard to the actions of the “other.” Saying “they are worse” is a dangerous track – especially when it blinds you to just how bad your own actions are, and can lead you down a path where, to an objective observer, you’re not only not “better than the other,” you have become the same or worse. Sadly, I fear this is where we have gone.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of comments accusing anyone who points out the legitimacy of some of Russia’s positions or actions in this crisis as Kremlin Apologists, Putin Fans, or other derogatory labels. Yes, there are some who seem to gravitate towards authoritarian figures, or reflexively support anyone who the “mainstream” seems to demonize. But there are solid reasons to be extremely disturbed by the actions of the Government of the United States that led us to this point (link to rant last year about this). It is no disservice to point out that much of the blame for the current situation lies with three decades of failed post cold war leadership provided by the current and previous five Presidents. Given the power the US wielded in that time frame, the catastrophic state of the global political situation largely lies at the door of the Congress and White House, and the middle finger of blame points equally at both political parties. Trying to smear those who think that the US is on the wrong track with the broad brush of the odious Tucker Carlsons or tRump MAGA fanatics is a political tactic to avoid facing responsibility for these failures, and paths to resolving the difficult problems created as a result.

It has become fashionable to imply that even trying to understand a contrary point of view is wrong. In today’s politically charged environment, it also invites the accusation of having sympathy for that point of view, especially if understanding the contrary point of view acknowledges the validity of some of the points they make. This is utterly absurd. The entire basis for negotiation is to seek out and find points of agreement and valid points of commonality. To fail to understand the “other” and demonize them is to destroy the negotiation process before it even starts. We see this domestically in discussions of race, economics, and other hot topic issues, and it is a point that Russia has made forcefully in the last two months – that the US fails to substantively respond to or acknowledge their concerns. Saying the “other” is illegitimate may be expedient politically, but it is toxic from the standpoint of getting things done.

There are dangerous times ahead. Please don’t fall into the trap of reflexively ignoring voices that are contrary to the mainstream (especially Government sponsored) narrative, or likewise agreeing with the leaders of your political tribe without critical thinking because their carefully crafted words fit your preconceptions. And be especially careful about projecting domestic political fights into this complex international crisis. This situation is messy enough without overlaying our woke vs. MAGA madness on it …

Of #Maus and Men

Watching the controversy over a Tennessee school board banning the comic Maus, I find myself wishing people would spend half as much bandwidth on opposing actual F’ing Nazis as they do expressing outrage over fictional ones. Where was the outrage over scenes like this, the US Military Attache to the Embassy in Ukraine, acting in her official capacity, rendering honors at a memorial to the fallen members of a neo-Nazi militia?

What an embarrassment.

That’s not to say the school board’s actions aren’t worthy of comment and reconsideration. The “graphic novel” art form is an interesting approach that certainly will engage this upcoming generation. But a number of serious academics have criticized the work over the animal metaphor, with the depiction of various nationalities as different animals. Some of these depictions are potentially offensive, such as the use of pigs for Poles, and some argue that the work plays into the Nazi stereotype that various nationalities and religions are different species, not just variations with a common humanity. There are other adult themes and subtexts regarding family that have also been noted by critics. So like many issues in modern America, I think this controversy isn’t quite so straightforward as it seems. Given these and other factors, I would certainly want to be careful about the age of students exposed to it. High school (Juniors and Seniors) should be of an age to be able to discuss the work, and I think it could be a good part of an “interdisciplinary” approach in the Arts, English, and History classwork, especially if these other issues were discussed. But like everything in education it should be as part of a carefully structured curriculum designed to teach kids to think, and prepare them for a complex, nuanced world.

And here is where the school board apparently went off the rails: far too often administrators and politicians avoid difficult subjects and controversy by restricting or banning them rather than creating a framework for using them. I suspect that the outrage over banning Maus is overblown and this wasn’t part of, as the author alleged, an attempt to whitewash Holocaust history. I doubt the Board thought it through much beyond “Oh, bad words and nudity, this subject makes us uncomfortable, fetch the banhammer!” Not everything is about some deeper issue, and making it more than that without solid evidence is a disservice to the victims of the Nazis.

Still, it is interesting to compare this controversy to a similar one playing out in the Seattle schools this week, the dropping of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their required reading list. In that case, the argument is remarkably similar, yet one those pushing for the use of Maus might well agree with without realizing they have switched sides. To quote from one of the members of the board,

“It’s a very difficult book and a lot of thorny subjects are raised, and we felt that some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding their students through it,” Gahagan said. “It deals not only with racism, but it reflects a time when racism was tolerated. Atticus Finch, of course, is in everyone’s memory the great hero of the book, but in fact he was kind of tolerant of the racism around him. He described one of the members of the lynch mob as a good man.”

KSL.com

Wow. In my world, that’s exactly what we call a “teachable moment.” And any teacher “not comfortable guiding their students” on this needs some retraining or another career. As I often rant, the problem with the Nazis, or KKK, or any odious group isn’t that they were some kind of alien evil, it is that they are all too human. Virtually every human organization that was what we would call evil had good and bad aspects, and typically had people who participated in them who were not irredeemably evil. With a bit of generalization, Americans love to see things in black and white. But the world isn’t that simple. Why did men who were clearly moral and ethical on many levels, like Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee, enable or support slavery? How did someone like Erwin Rommel, or Werner von Braun become a Nazi? Many of the people who were instrumental in triggering and supporting the civil rights movement were, like Atticus, complex, doing the right thing while holding views that today would be considered repugnant. Likewise, those who participated in lynch mobs were often “good” family loving people in other contexts. Why? What makes them different?

If you don’t read their works and fictional accounts that relate that complexity, and study – in context – their life and times, you will never know. And never recognize it when your own government makes common cause with evil for expedient short term gain, or your organization that is trying to do good, by either protecting children or educating them, resorts to the kind of book banning and demonization without cause that the Nazis exploited in their rise.

The first place to look for signs and symptoms of toxic ideologies like Fascism isn’t out the window. It’s in the mirror. That seems to be the real lesson here.

Ukraine Situation Update

It’s really hard to know what to say about this. The public rhetoric and propaganda has reached insane proportions, the cartoonish “Russians Preparing to Invade” on one side, the “Nazi hordes joining forces to besiege Mother Russia” on the other, and caught in the middle, the people in the region that is called “Ukraine.” It’s a complex situation, and simplistic, good vs bad, right vs. wrong depictions are not only unhelpful, they are inflammatory and misleading. So recognizing that environment here are a few thoughts.

As an introduction to my view on the background please read this previous post for some notes on the history of how we got here. In short, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the eastern regions of Ukraine should probably have been transferred back to Russia since the old boundaries of the Soviet Republics were in some cases arbitrary, and changed over time. Speaking of which, can you find Ukraine (or any other country) on this map?

But all anybody cared about at first was making sure the nukes and bugs were secured, and to make a buck in the process. The borders of the Soviet Republics were convenient lines for the breakup. Russia was in turmoil, and the nascent government of Ukraine wanted to make sure it had control of the resources located in the east. This put significant areas in Eastern Ukraine that had strong economic, historical, and cultural ties to Russia, not to mention the vital Black Sea bases mentioned in the earlier post, in the new nation-state. All that said, my feeling is that it could have worked had everyone followed the Budapest Memorandum and other agreements in good faith, and just let Ukraine evolve a middle path. But instead the games started, and competition rather than cooperation took over. Trying to force Ukraine as a whole to pick sides has created division, conflict and chaos. And that’s the true tragedy: there shouldn’t have been any “sides”.

Post-2014 revolution/coup Ukraine is a gigantic train wreck. Even with all these words I worry I oversimplify the political situation in Ukraine and LPR/Novorossiya by speaking of the five “sides” (Ukraine Government, LPR, Russia, EU, US/NATO). It is such a mess; and the various factions within Ukraine are complex. There are legitimately pro-EU groups, legitimately pro-Russia groups, etc. You have rampant influence and astroturf organizations sponsored by US entities like NED, Soros funded organizations, etc. all stirring up trouble and anti-Russian sentiment. You have widespread Russian influence operations in play as well, trying to counter those groups. Russian sources speak of Nazis. Certainly within military circles the neo-Nazis are powerful and important, even though they no longer hold seats in the Rada (Ukraine’s legislative body). There are hard-core OUN type nationalists who are not technically Nazis, and they do hold a majority number of seats, but they (like the US) make common cause with the Nazis and use them as their enforcers thinking that they will deal with them “later” (which never ends well). The forces in the east sponsored by Russia aren’t so bad, but aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy either. And caught in the middle are the average people of Ukraine, who would probably have been perfectly happy with a less corrupt, neutral path between the EU and Russia. But I would argue the US is at fault in that we sought to exploit the justified desire for change to destabilize the situation and gain geopolitical advantage rather than strive for improvement and stability. In other words, Russia found itself resisting change out of fears the US would exploit it; the US pushed change precisely to exploit it, and the spiral continues.

As for the immediate situation, Is Russia Preparing to Invade Ukraine? No, with a caveat. As far as I can tell, Russia does not have the intent to “invade” Ukraine in any traditional sense of the word, and if the goal is to conquer the entire territory of Ukraine, I see no evidence they either want to or have put the forces in place to do so. The current hyperbole is only relevant if you haven’t been paying attention; it’s nothing new. But … Russia has in place tremendous military capacity to act in Ukraine. Of course it does; it’s like asking if the US can project enormous military force into Mexico or Canada should it chose to do so. So naturally Russia has had in place significant firepower to be able to project it in to Ukraine should a provocation arise for a long time. Besides, there has been a civil war on their border for the last seven years that threatens to spill over into their country, and Ukrainian radical groups often express the desire to “retake” areas of Russia (which even if not rational or realistic are still threats that have to be considered – especially given the silence of the US on the issue), so the Минобороны России would be incompetent if they didn’t keep forces on standby, and given recent rhetoric, increasing readiness to respond to provocations is both prudent and unsurprising.

Does that mean a conflict is not imminent? Unfortunately, I suspect conflict is on the horizon. I think there is a very high probability there will be an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine/Novorossiya in the coming months. There has been ongoing violence for years now, and potential for it to escalate are increasing. Russia is extremely concerned that Ukraine is becoming the latest, and most dangerous, link in the US policy of encirclement, economic isolation, and “containment.” Here comes the caveat in the above “No” to invasion. At some point Russia is going to feel it has nothing to lose by stabilizing the situation on the border by occupying (liberating, whatever) either directly or more likely indirectly with stand-off fire support the eastern Oblasti (administrative regions). While that will further rupture the already deteriorating situation between the US/NATO and Russia, and will probably wreck the European economies and trigger turmoil, if we survive it might reduce the level of violence and stabilize things in the long run with the remainder of Ukraine becoming more integrated in Europe, and eastern Ukraine/Novorossiya reuniting with Russia. That is, if the US will allow that to happen by not escalating militarily. Here is where the danger lies, because the correlation of forces is such that any attempt by the US or NATO to intervene militarily will end in regional conventional defeat or the use of nuclear weapons. So my bet is that a “gentleman agreement” of sorts will occur to split up Ukraine if things devolve to a military confrontation, and direct conflict between the two (US/NATO and Russia) will be avoided. But it’s a horribly dangerous situation that can easily get out of control.

Given the nature of the US political leadership and philosophy, I’m having a hard time seeing how this ends well. There may well be a collapse of the government in Ukraine due to all of the internal and external stresses. Of course in the Western media it will be portrayed as all Russia’s fault, but while they are certainly involved, in all fairness, and with great sadness, I have to say that most of the blame for the situation there rests with the US.

And the destruction of Ukraine, and a rupture of relations between Europe and Russia, are in some warped perspectives to the short term advantage of the US. I think the US has decided the best way to disrupt what it sees as Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is blowing up relations, and Ukraine is the fuse to do just that. It would make the EU utterly dependent on US energy, give a major boost to defense spending, and a stable Iron Curtain Redux might actually allow the “pivot to Asia” to confront China that many in the US MIC and Foreign Policy community want. I think there are serious flaws in that thinking and worldview, but it’s ship of fools.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Russians are the “good guys” here. What I’m saying is that they haven’t been given the opportunity to do much of anything other than what they are doing. The US is pumping millions of dollars of military aid into a hostile country engaged in a civil war, with an unstable government, and policies that to a neutral observer, and this may seem harsh, were starting to border on ethnic cleansing. Consider what the reaction of the US would be if, say, China participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mexico, then starting pumping in the equivalent over $4 Billion dollars a year of military aid (which in relative terms is what the US is sending Ukraine). I can imagine the utterly epic rending of garments and gnashing of teeth … and not just threats of intervention, but an actual armed response.

So as we watch what unfolds in the coming weeks, realize that the simplistic view being presented by politicians and the media is no where near the whole “truth”, that in perspective there are probably few or no true heroes or villains. And most of all recognize and regret this was all avoidable with some good faith and a willingness to take the long view rather than constantly maneuver as if this were a short term, zero sum game.

Earthquake in #Haiti yesterday

There was an earthquake in Haiti yesterday, continuing to add to the misery in that often forgotten country on our doorstep. At least two dead and dozens injured

click to embiggen.

I’m not seeing much in the US media about this. I guess Joe Biden’s latest SOB gaff, or the latest horse race political analysis, or the insane situation in Ukraine buried the story. It’s hard to know what to say about Haiti and the situation there other than to sigh in despair.