Tuesday, November 18, 2014

While our attention was diverted

The mid-term elections took most of the American media's attention away from the air strikes in Iraq and Syria.  The Republican win has some serious changes coming for the Armed Services Committee which means a potential end to defense cuts.  For example, the A-10 may finally be spared and its continuation means ground troops will continue to have the best close air support platform available.

After the elections, attention has continued to be focused on how the Republican controlled Congress and Senate intend to deal with a lame duck President who intends to pass the most drastic and radical immigration reforms ever.  Obama may be playing on fears that he will try to use executive power to push it through to manage an extremely hostile legislative branch (one in which he has no friends even within his own party).  The problem is becomes a game of chicken and if he blinks, it will be over.  If on the other hand if does push through immigration then there will be calls for the legislative branch to impeach the President.  If that happens, there will be no winners.

Meanwhile, while the media and pundits await this political stand-off our attention gets diverted to yet another potential flare-up in Ferguson, MO.  The grand jury will announce its decision any day and now seems more and more like no indictment.  The press has done a marvelous job of allowing this tragedy to turn into a racially divisive issue.  If no indictment is handed out, rioting is expected and the Missouri governor has already called out the National Guard to assist police.

Somehow the similarity to having armed troops called out (again) to the earlier response by the Ferguson PD (and how its response fueled rather than dampened tensions) has escaped the governor.  To make matters worse, a Navy veteran was fired from his job at Drury Suites in Chesterfield, MO when he posted photos of dozens of Department of Homeland Security SUVs parked in the hotel garage.  Chesterfield is 25 southwest of Ferguson.  It's as if matters are being deliberated handled to make matters worse. (source: Daily Mail)

Ebola continues to burn through Liberia and the Army is sending more units according to the Army Times;

•16th Engineer Brigade headquarters, Ohio National Guard

•223rd Military Intelligence Battalion (Linguist Detachment), California National Guard

•272nd Engineer Company (Vertical Construction), Texas National Guard

•294th Area Support Medical Company, Iowa National Guard

•891st Engineer Battalion, Kansas National Guard.

The Reserve units deploying are:

•96th Sustainment Brigade, of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver, Colorado

•313th Movement Control Battalion, Baltimore, Maryland

•324th Fire Fighting Detachment, East Point, Georgia

•324th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Granite City, Illinois

•329th Survey and Design Team, St. Joseph, Minnesota

•387th Medical Logistics Company, Miami, Florida

•398th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, Rockville, Maryland

•452nd Preventative Medicine Team, Miami, Florida

•996th Horizontal Engineer Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

•B Company, 412th Civil Affairs Battalion, Columbus, Ohio

The interesting thing is how even ebola has become a divisive issue here in the US.  Take barring passenger flights originating from ebola infected countries when the outbreak first started.  The White House claimed to cut-off those countries would do more harm then good, yet other African countries have take exactly that stance and have remained outbreak free.  Healthcare providers expected infected patients and family members to follow that they then seem to ignore themselves once they return home.

All of this takes attention away from a question that should have been bothering us for some time.  How did ISIS/ISIL/IS not only become so formidable but manage to maintain its gains even in the face of US led airstrikes?  War takes troops and weapons but most of all it takes money.  Where is ISIS/ISIL/IS getting theirs?  According to a story yesterday on RT.com, "Dozens of vehicles carrying oil leave Syria’s petroleum capital, Raqqa, currently under IS control, every hour, earning the extremist group a million dollars daily, according to an oil refinery employee in the occupied city".  The story goes on to conclude that the Islamic State has an estimated wealth of nearly $2 billion making it the richest terrorist organization in the world.  If the RT story is accurate, this means for the first time since the Cold War the US is fighting an enemy that is a financial match.

The US faces a very tough road ahead.  On one hand, the US could lose a war of attrition by simply being unable to afford enough replacement munitions and equipment (not to mention troops!) to fight IS for the long haul.  IS does not rely on expensive weapon systems such as F-22s so it is a distinct possibility.  On the other hand, should the US go after the refineries it will make others in the Muslim believe this war was only an excuse to take over resources from Syria.  We could either end-up losing a war by going bankrupt or win a war and confirm Muslim fears of US lead imperialism (and still end-up bankrupt).

One last thought to kind of tie things together, since IS has deep pocket books wouldn't a simple strategy be to recruit operatives from hotbed areas such as Ferguson and destabilize matters without ever mentioning IS?  Or IS could follow the Colombian drug cartel model of paying a third party to commit acts of terror for you?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Absentee Leadership

In the past month, we have experienced the run-up to the midterm elections, Halloween, and the Democrats lose the mid-term elections and finally Veterans Day.  I've struggled with analyzing the impact of the elections beyond the partisan lines that we have been inundated with for nearly the last two weeks.  This is going to be a long essay as I try to broach elections, national security and what is going on in the USAF (sorry, I haven't figure out how to include Halloween in this entry) so bear with me.

My conclusion in short is that the United States has produced the greatest crop of mediocre leaders that has ever held office, Democrats and Republicans alike.  One nearly needs to know that most likely candidates to run for President in 2016 have the last names of Clinton and (perhaps) Bush to realize we have no hope for change in the future.  Anyone who has not been battered about in the media by political pundits has zero chance of getting nominated, much less elected.  The modern vetting process has the secondary effect of making any candidate so middle of the road as to be completely uninteresting and mediocre.  Hence when a new candidate that does manage to surface, there is a buzz and excitement that he/she will do something.  This was the phenomenon that helped get Obama elected (a mediocre Senator from Illinois) and explains the landslide Republican victories in this year's election.  Americans are tired of mediocrity but we don't know what to do about it.

You can analyze this further but what happens is the closer you look, the greater the tendency to start forming theories along partisan lines, regardless of your political affiliation.  Democrats see that elections as a failure to mobilize their base (really?  How many incumbents fought tooth & nail but still lost?), Republicans see it as a repudiation of the Democrat agenda (whatever in the hell that means).  They are both right and both wrong.  Americans are quite frankly looking for leaders and they aren't finding any in either party (no Republicans, you haven't proven yourselves yet).  If the newly elected Republicans don't produce leaders, the 2016 elections will see Democrats winning in a wild hope that they are secretly the leaders the Republicans didn't turn out to be.

The mediocrity of American leadership, and I'm not just speaking now of elected officials, has been in the making for quite a while.  My compass on this epiphany is my alma mater, the United States Air Force.  The military has always been a microcosm of what is happening on a larger scale in the rest of American society because that's where the troops come from.  Two recent articles reinforced my opinion of this theory and it explains the state of affairs in the military as well as to why the Democrats lost the election (and in-turn what that means for our national security).  More on those articles in a moment but first a little background as to why those articles resounded with me.

A retired chief master sergeant that I worked with and still am good friends with likes to point to how the USAF started down the path of mediocrity when it went ape-shit over total quality management (TQM) back in the early 90s.  I was still in the active duty back then and remember how we were told TQM would help give the lowly airmen in a back shop the means to let the commander know why the aircraft weren't operating at peak efficiency.  Sounds awesome except even after we went full-blown down the TQM road, aircraft still were late or didn't take off the same way the did as before the implementation of TQM.  We may have been better able at identifying problems but we weren't any better at solving them.  By adopting TQM (and later many other quality improvement techniques), the USAF was admitting without realizing it that their leaders didn't know what was going on.

The USAF tends to function much more like a corporation at times rather than as a branch of the military.  Perhaps this should not be too surprising given that number of commissioned officers that are engineers (at one time this number was over 90 percent).  We have a tendency in the USAF to believe process improvement will overcome anything (including poor leadership).  Engineers are taught from their first classes in college to dismiss anything that does not lead to an improvement in efficiency.

The effect is compounded by the commanding officers who are also pilots of single seat aircraft.  These officers spend their formative years learning to fly ever more efficiently to defeat the enemy.  Compare that to how junior officers in the Army or Marines spend their time learning how to lead their troops into battle.  Rated officers in the USAF may not directly supervise troops until they become a squadron commander (usually a major so that's around 8 years commissioned time assuming the officer has not been passed over).

The culture of efficiency then is hard-wired into many USAF officers and when faced with a leadership problem, the tendency is to look for a way to improve efficiency rather than lead.  What this means in overly simplistic terms is the best way to improve efficiency is to look for components (people) that are not performing at optimal levels.  To efficiency experts (management consultants fall into this category as well), leadership can be quantified into how the individual components are performing.  To these experts, a poor performing component must be the problem thus improving the perforce of said component (or removing it) means increased efficiency.  Simple, none confrontational and easy to package and sell.

So what has a quarter century of process improvement vetted against the longest war in modern history produced?  On Nov 7, Col Donald Grannan (88th Communications Group Commander) wrote an essay on the Wright-Patteron Base webpage entitled "How did we lose this young Airmen?".  If you haven't already read this piece, take the time now and read it.  I applaud Col Grannan for taking the very bold step of not only recognizing what is wrong with the USAF leadership culture and having the courage to write about it.  I guarantee he isn't be popular with senior leaders but from the comments you can see how many airmen agree with his assessment.

The article has gone viral amongst USAF airmen and anyone with an interest in military leadership.  John Q. Public, a extremely well written blog on the USAF, also analyzed Col Grannan's essay on "Boiling Point: Colonel's Commentary Exposes Deep Frustration Amongst Airmen".  It is an extremely insightful piece that mirror much of my own experiences and observations about the Air Force.  His conclusion, "It (Col Grannan's essay) casts a light on a profoundly broken service culture more concerned with identifying and punishing imperfection than championing excellence, training and developing people, or building teams to fight and win wars," is extremely alarming but is the result of a service that wants to hide behind management techniques rather than fostering real leaders.

The essay takes points raised by Col Grannan further by pointing out the issues caused by the constant deployments faced by airmen.  It creates absentee leaders yet deployments have become one of the core missions of the USAF (basic training now has airmen going through a simulated deployment as part of their training).  The pursuit of efficiency (the USAF would say excellence but the preponderance of evidence is to the contrary) is why the Air Force adopted the concept of the "air expeditionary force" in the first place.  To better understand this, a little history is in order first.

Back when I was serving in the 39th Special Operations Wing (39 SOW) in the early 90s, it was the only special ops wing in the region (Europe and Africa) so we often were tasked with both air rescue missions as well as special ops missions.  At this time however, the first President Bush had decided to draw down the Cold War legacy infrastructure in Europe to save money (overseas bases don't have elected officials who will bitch if you try to close them).  Granted, there were a surplus of facilities but the Bush drawdown started while US forces were still fighting in Desert Storm!  Soldiers rotated back to their European bases to find them closed and their families moved back stateside.

In 1992, I remember having to rotate 3 times down range in support of Operation Provide Comfort (the cease fire of Desert Storm).  Upon returning from my 3rd rotation, I found out our unit was not only tasked with continuing to support Provide Comfort, but also the Olympic Games in Spain (the IOC in its infinite wisdom decided to house the athletes on ships.  A more perfect hostage scenario could not have been imagined), and a new contingency in a little place called Somalia.  Oh and it was the 39th SOW who would be flying US citizens out of places like Liberia whenever their governments decided to implode. At the same time, the Bush drawdowns also introduced "reduction in force" (RIF) or involuntary separations.  Officers who were commissioned between 1980-85 stood a 90% chance of being involuntarily separated (except for pilots, although rotary wing pilots were not exempt).  Guess where I fell?  Class of 1985 thank you very much!  In frustration, I asked my boss how we were supposed to meet all of these requirements with fewer people and that's when I heard the words that caused me to leave the active duty, "We will have to do more with less".

I didn't realize how prescient his words would turn out to be.  Most military scholars would say the legacy of Desert Storm was to prove the supremacy of airpower.  The dirty little secret though was Desert Storm was done in a bass-akwards way.  Troops and equipment were assembled piecemeal from stateside and European units and sent forward as deployed elements (contrary to all of the doctrine).  Part of this was out of fear that if whole units were sent, then the Soviet Union (which had not yet fallen) might try to attack a vulnerable Europe.  A more cynical view is this was a way for the Bush Administration to circumnavigate the War Powers Resolution (often erroneously called the"War Powers Act").  Desert Storm also gave more momentum towards the "more with less" mentality as the USAF would have to maintain two no-fly zones over Iraq with fewer aircraft and troops than in the months during the war.

It gave birth to the "air expeditionary force" or AEF concept which is still used today.  From an efficiency model, it is lovely as you only deploy what you need in the quantities need (sort of a just-in-time production model for airpower).  Combat ready troops and equipment are sent into the area of operations and when their time is up or they break (people as well as planes), they are rotated back to home station for maintenance and repair.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the originator of the systems approach to warfare, could scarcely have imagined the state of things in the 21st Century USAF!  Airmen no longer fight alongside the people they train with day in and day out, instead they are sent forward to an AEW (air expeditionary wing) as part of a package to become an amalgamation of their home units.  Compound this with the need to draw extensively from Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units and it becomes no wonder that Col Grannan's airmen felt like she wasn't part of anything.  

But the AEF also adversely effects leaders since your performance evaluations are not based on your deployed unit but on your home-station unit's performance. The efficiency experts will say how successful the AEF is by spouting the mantra "Total Force!" but only now, 13 years into the war on terror, are people beginning to see the fallacy.  Commanders are bounced back and forth just as much as their airmen but these are supposed to be the leaders.  When do the leaders actually have time to lead the units and people they are responsible for leading?

John Q. Public makes reference to absentee leaders and how that creates a situation where airmen feel their commanders aren't invested in them.  You may only work your real commander a fraction of your assignment, most often airmen are working for an acting commander.  Likewise when you deploy, your AEW commander is not the one who is going to recommend you for promotion or your next assignment.  The USAF quest for efficiency and quantifiable data has led them down this primrose path and only now are some beginning to see it.  Imagine airpower leaders such as Maj Gen Billy Mitchell, Gen Curtis LeMay or Gen Jimmy Doolittle of mistaking process improvement for leadership.  They could never have achieved their accomplishments in today's Air Force.

Or take for example Brig Gen Robin Olds.  He was a "Triple Ace" scoring 16 aerial kills during WWII and Vietnam.  By all accounts, he was a charismatic leader who lead the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing "Wolf Pack" during the Vietnam War (including flying 100 missions himself) to achieve air superiority in face of the superior MiG fighters and relentless barrage of North Vietnamese .  He was a brilliant pilot who know how to teach other pilots who to thrive in combat.  Yet Brig Gen Olds would never have made it in today's USAF due to his drinking, womanizing and his flagrant disregard for senior leaders.  His case demonstrates an inherent problem with the Air Force, its greatest heroes were also flawed yet they continue to expect today's airmen not to have any flaws.  The Air Force believes by abandoning human relations and focusing on the mission and efficiency, inspirational leaders like Olds will be born minus the human frailty. The quest for efficiency has produce a zero-tolerance mentality for anything that might adversely effect mission readiness.  

Instead of giving officers and NCOs the chance to fail (and learn from their mistakes), these failures are seen as "areas for improvement" to be summarily dealt with.  The result has been to produce leaders who don't rock the boat.  For officers, it has always been a case of "up or out"but now it is the details that will end your career.  How many PT failure did your squadron have has quickly replaced ORI and UCI scores to evaluate your effectiveness as a future leader and potential for career advancement.

As both Col Grannan and John Q. Public point out, the USAF has found a quick-fix in emphasizing PT scores to the point of absurdity.  In addition to losing a quality airmen, the USAF is its quest for efficiency just lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in training that it will have to spend again in training a replacement.  Madness!

Now as the Air Force and the rest of the US military deal with the enviable post-conflict drawdown, the likelihood of this pattern continuing increases.  The drawdowns are to save money that we no longer need to spend since we are "no longer conducting operations"...except of course in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  This means more, not less, rotations for airmen which will compound the issues Col Grannan and John Q. Public articulated.

Taking the points articulated by John Q. Public and Col Grannan one step further absentee, mediocre leadership is exactly why we have seen a increase in sexual assaults in the Air Force.  Let's go back to Col Brannan's airmen for a moment and her car crash.  No one saw themselves as "owning" responsibility for insuring the airmen saw justice.  Everyone involved thought (or worse, hoped) someone else would deal with it accordingly.  No one bothered to check up on her situation to insure she was getting the help she deserved.  They didn't because few in today's Air Force truly see themselves as "airmen" who are responsible for the well being of every other "airmen".  The whole wingman concept sounds great in theory but is not really being practiced for if it were, the loss of Col Grannan's airmen should have been a loss to be grieved and her colleagues (superiors as well as peers) called to account for why they had failed her and the USAF.  Reversing this sense of ownership is the only way the USAF will ever produce real leaders.  I consider myself a real leader and have had my butt chewed more than once whenever I took on a cause of defending someone that I thought was not being treated fairly, I don't hold my breath for this to happen.  Damn regulations and policies, sometimes we lose sight of the forest because of the tree!  Losing airmen because she did feel like anyone cared means there are scores of others that feel exactly the same way.

Apparently, the USAF isn't the only branch suffering from absentee leadership.  Voltaire Net, which is a Russian website published an article, "What frightened the USS Donald Cook so much in the Black Sea?"  It alleges that a Russian Su-24 was able to shut-down all of the systems on board the USS Donald Cook, an Aegis class destroyer.  If true, it would seem to explain the US reluctance to confront Russian forces engaged in Ukraine in a head-on manner.  It would also mean that like airmen, the expertise of the Navy NCOs and Petty Officers have been ignored.  Should the allegations of the Voltaire piece prove even be half-true, it means Navy senior leaders bought off on a high tech solution that the Russians figured out how to beat with a low tech weapon (most likely, lots of high-power energy to overwhelm all of the Aegis systems simultaneously).

Any salty sailor who has manned a radar or maintenance tech could have told the higher ups that their precious, high value system was vulnerable to a good old-fashioned virtual, high-powered sledge hammer.  I've actually seen this happen.  When I was in Ground TACS (mobile radar), we were in a large-scale exercise.  We went up against an EF-111 (Raven) that tried to jam us.  We used all of countermeasures to make the back-seater earn his paycheck but he got of tired of playing with us and showed us what a pissed off Raven could really do.  He turned up the power and shut-us completely, and I do mean completely, down.  I'm inclined to believe the Su-24 did not make the USS Donald Cook sailors life any easier.

During the Cold War days, the US became increasingly concerned about reducing the amount of collateral damage and looked to create ever more accurate weapons (which in part gave birth to GPS).  In contrast, the Soviets didn't worry about accuracy.  If they wanted to take out a bunker they multiplied the tonnage of a given warhead by a factor of "p" for plenty!  They would build multiple copies of this system so that even if some went astray, eventually one would find its target.  It appears the modern day Russians have not forgotten this brute force approach to defeating US high tech.  Where are the Navy leaders who should have said, "But our adversaries don't fight like us!  What if they simply put more electrons down our pipe than it can handle?  Will our systems handle it or will it create a complete shut-down of all systems?"

Unfortunately, this leadership problem is not just endemic to the US military.  It is a reflection of what is happening in the private sector as well.  Many of our current politicians boast advanced degrees from the same Ivy League institutions that produce the latest theories on performance improvement.  Worse, we now view failure as a detriment.  If you had to file for bankruptcy or lost a business, you are more noted for that than any successes you may have had.  The one-failure mentality in the private sector is little different from the "up or out" mentality of the USAF.  You are supposed to be born with the wisdom to lead, we don't recognize the value of someone who has tried and failed.

Obama is just the latest, most obvious example that was taught all manner of management theory and then given the reigns to the country without having had to vet his theoretical knowledge against the harshness of reality.  He never had to try and fail at anything before and was elected because this vacuum was not held against, in fact it was why the US public voted for his "hope and change" promise.  The US in desperation has now elected a whole new crop of unproven officials in the hopes that they may still be able to lead us somewhere despite a lack of evidence that they are any better than the people the have replaced.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

World Economies

Less we forget, while the headlines keep our minds and behavior focused on ebola and ISIS, the rest of the world continues.  Christine Lagarde, managing director for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), announced a cut to their projections citing "uneven recovery" of the financial markets.

Ukraine hasn't found any resolution to their conflict since the world has been worrying about ISIS and viruses.  Pro-Russian separatists and the Ukraine government aren't any closer to signing an agreement and this keeps financial markets worried a war could still erupt there.

The US has try to turn Russia into a pariah and levied economic sanctions against them.  While it has done nothing to improve the situation in Ukraine, it has made the Russian economy weaker.  Russia is depending more on China and less on Europe as a result.  What Obama has forgotten though is Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas.  The result has been a weakening German economy (which drives the economy of continental Europe) as investors grow nervous over Russian exports to Europe.

ISIS and Khorosan have replaced our attention but over the summer the US was all worried about Boko Haram, the Nigerian based group that kidnapped 200 school girls.  Those girls still have not been released (at least not that has been announced in the news).  As of Sep 20th, CNN was reporting negotiations for their release were still on-going.  Boko Haram was another group ignored by the Obama administration until their actions could no longer be ignored.  The US response to this crisis was especially anemic.

According to CNBC, "Standing at the new total of $510 billion, Nigeria's economic output exceeds that of South Africa, making it Africa's largest economy with approximately a fifth of the continent's entire GDP."  With Boko Haram remaining unchecked, the economy of Nigeria is at risk as well.

We already know of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.  Those airstrikes that Obama has authorized is not going anything to help markets feel better about that part of the world.  Don't forget, the violence in Gaza has only stopped after nearly seven weeks of violence.

China and Japan continue to squabble over the Senkaku (Japan)/Daiyo (China) islands.  The increased aggression of the Chinese economy and increased military spending, along with increased aggression towards US ally Japan, was the reason for the "pivot towards Asia" doctrine that all but a footnote now.

The protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong continues for a second week without any signs of an end in sight.  Business and tourism in Hong Kong have begun to suffer and older residents fear civil unrest if the protests continue.  Retail sales plunged during the protests.

The ongoing protests, even if they end shortly, are likely to have a more visible impact on the city’s fourth-quarter growth, especially on retail and tourism,” Mole Hau, an economist with BNP Paribas SA, wrote in a note to investors. (Bloomberg)

The news has already forgotten about the political unrest in Egypt caused by first the overthrow of Mubarak.  Investors are still wary of Egypt's economy.

Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela all are undergoing recessions.  Cash injections by the Federal Reserve between 2009-13 have been halted. The effect has been to induce recessions.  Argentina defaulted on its loans back in July.  Argentine President Kirchner tried export levies on beef to protect consumers from higher prices.  It hasn't worked and only managed to take Argentine beef off the market.

Is it any wonder that we would rather be focused on a possible outbreak or dropping bombs on a renamed al-Qaeda group than trying to focus on much larger problems?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Information Drives Behavior

In the course of reading a variety of articles over the last few weeks, I kept running into the name "Edward Barnays".  What was unusual is that I was not doing any research on Barnays nor any topics directly related to his work, yet things are not always what they seem.  I soon discovered that my reason for encountering his name and work was because I was pursuing a line of thought that today's headlines are driving our perceptions and behaviors regarding Islam, terrorists, infectious diseases, immigration and the Middle East.

First, a little about Edward Barnays.  You may not have heard of him but you and I encounter his work on a daily basis.  Barnays was 'the father of public relations" (the quote is from his own obituary) and also the nephew of Sigmund Freud.  His work during World War I on the Committee for Public focused on "bringing democracy all over Europe" and lead him to conclude that propaganda could be used to sway the public during peacetime.

Propaganda has a negative connotation due its use by the Germans during WWI and later by the Nazis during WWII.  Barnays came up with the term "public relations" which had a positive connotation as well as being nebulous in its meaning.  He used theories of social psychology (such as crowd psychology, how crowds act differently from the individuals in it) combined with his uncle's theories on psychoanalysis to persuade public opinion.  He was the first to realize the power of the press release and used it successfully to change public opinion in favor of his clients.

For example, women smoking was very much a social taboo up until the 1920s.  The cigarette industry realized there market share would be greatly increased if more women smoked but social norm were against it.  Barnays created a campaign showing women smoking not cigarettes but "Torches of Freedom" symbolizing women's new independence through suffrage as being expressed by a cigarette.  It worked.

His other major campaign changed what we eat for breakfast in the United States.  Up until the 1930s, Americans pretty much had with either tea of coffee for breakfast.  Barnays created a campaign showing a large breakfast consisting of bacon and eggs was far more filling and nutritional (on behalf of course of the meat and dairy industry).  He spliced in expert testimony from doctors showing the importance of eating a filling breakfast and the results was to this day, Americans think of breakfast as being a large meal consisting of bacon and eggs.

Bernays used the "Freudian theory" to deal with the public's conception of communism, as he believed that we should not be easing the public's fear of communism, but rather promote that fear and play with the public's emotions of it. This theory was so powerful that it became a weapon of its own during the Cold War. (Wikipedia)

Barnays the man and his work deserver your further reading and research.  I've merely summarized here the points that caused my research to lead to Barnays.

For example, how did ISIS and now the previously unheard of Khorosan Group go from a bunch of Asad opponents to the greatest threat facing the US today?  Shortly before the airstrikes began, the press began sounding the alarm bells of the dangers of ISIS.  Almost on queue, a fired employee (and "recent" convert to Islam) beheaded a former co-worker RIGHT HERE IN THE US!  Oh my but the hawks (both on the right and left) came out for the call to take action now!  The threat was so big even the FBI had to add their seal of approval to the scope of the threat posed by ISIS.

The question all of the headlines fail to answer is how did this ragtag group of of militants (many recruited from outside Syria or Iraq) suddenly have the where with all to become such a major force?  Not only can ISIS attack and occupy land in Syria but they are at the same time able to devote time and resources to attack the US.  It seems unlikely and the news continues to only repeat one another.

Islam and Muslims have become the new Communism and Communists of the 21st Century.  Imagine if we would have seen nearly as much converge of the beheading had the perpetrator been merely suffering a mental health episode rather than a conversing to Islam?  Same crime, same loss of life but one is a major headline, the other is a second page story.

Say CNN breaks a story involving a "radical Islamist" shooting up a school.  All of the other media outlets will follow with the story, not because of a master agenda but because they see their numbers drop.  As the story develops, more and more use of the term "radical Islamist" turns up and viewers become convinced that the shooting is due to the perpetrators belief in Islam.  As the days and weeks go on, the term gets repeated convincing everyone the there is a threat of radical Islam to our schools.  Much later, after the news cycle has moved on to the next crisis, do we learn that while the shooter was Muslim it was due to his termination by the school and not his religious beliefs that led to the school shooting.  Our minds only hear the reverberations of "radicalized Muslim".

That's the power of what Barnays discovered and how ISIS and now Khorosan have become such unbridle threat.  They have no more or less ability than they did a year ago but the constant barrage of reports by the media, "experts", pundits and social media have everyone building the group into 9 foot giants.  And the media has played a huge part in this.

Two things have led to the media becoming an unwitting accomplice (perhaps) to the propaganda, sorry public relations, scheme.  The first was creation of the 24 hour new cycle.  Editors now can't afford to sit on a story until reporters complete their fact-checking.  The deadline is now minutes, not days.  The corollary problem is even when there is time, there simply may not be the staff as news bureaus have shrunk or become almost now existent.  Look at your own daily newspaper, the beat reporters are non-existent except in the largest markets.  One news bureau may produce content for several regional dailies.

Those two factors have led to the creation of the impact of first bloggers and now social media.  The information pouring out of Syria or China via Instagram and Twitter are far more voluminous than even the Associated Press or Reuters could produce.  In turn, the mainstream press has learned how to re-package this free information into their by-lines.  Fact-checking?  We don't need no stinking fact-checking.

Social media is a mechanism which Edward Barnays would have loved.  Repeat a certain key message amongst the most influential social media sites and press-to!  You have manipulated public opinion or even changed behavior at a fraction of the cost and time of the old way of doing things.  Marx didn't know what he was talking about when he termed religion "the opiate of the masses".  Information, or more correctly disinformation, has become the new opiate.  Barnays and the Nazi propaganda machine both found that the bigger the lie, the more readily it will be believed by the masses.

Ebola presents us with another case of Barnays principles at work.  How did an African blood borne virus suddenly become the biggest epidemic to face the United States?  Even in Africa, ebola rarely spread beyond its initial flare-up, only to then go dormant.  Yet this disease has now become so virulent that it threatens the US which has state-of-the-art medical and sanitation systems?  Something doesn't add up.

Conflicting information about the virus is keeping it in the headlines and thus causing people to panic at the thought that this disease is going to wipe us out.  To be sure, ebola is a very dangerous organism and our lax approach thus far here in the United Staes makes us susceptible to an outbreak but what does that mean?  A few dozen cases or a hundred thousand?  Is the disease an incurable harbinger of death or is it curable?  Answers to those questions won't be found in the headlines as they race to keep up with the latest case of a patient exhibiting signs of ebola infection.

Our behaviors going into the polls next month will be greatly shaped by how these and other events are being played out in the media.  The one thing that alludes me is the rationale behind Obama's sacking of the Secret Service director and condemnation of his own intelligence agencies while there is a media blitz of beheadings and ebola infections.  His actions do not dissuade the fears being whipped up over terrorism, ebola and immigration and may drive "safety moms" away from Democrat candidates (see the governor race in Texas or Kentucky as examples).  In short, he is not helping his party win more seats in the mid-term elections.

Unless this is all part of a larger strategy to create such paranoia that even the most hardened Libertarians will accept even more intrusive government controls to insure our safety.  Take quarantine for example.

Most people are not familiar with the draconian nature of quarantine laws.  In a reverse to our normal jurisprudence, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent (infected until proven otherwise).  Under quarantine protocols, you can and will be locked up for nothing more that the SUSPICION that you may have come into contact with an infected person.  And you thought the USA PATRIOT Act was Orwellian!  

If ebola or enterovirus becomes widespread, the right to travel wherever you want in the US, along with right to not having to share your travel plans with anyone, will got out the window. Law enforcement and health officials will be able to isolate your family members on the chance they may have been exposed.  And many will go along with this overreaction because of the behavioral changes the headlines have helped to create.  Employers may not hire you if you have travelled to somewhere where there is a known outbreak or your employer may not allow you to return to work until you can prove you aren't infected.

Parents are already starting to pull their children from schools where there has been an outbreak of enterovirus.  The government may become involved for the 'sake of the children' and force the students back to school.  The parents may be fined or arrested as a result.  Don't believe it?  A teacher was arrested for bringing in a plastic, toy sword as part of Pirate Day.  The accepted behavior, after years of headlines about school shootings, is to arrest anyone for bringing a weapon, even a toy on to school grounds.

Our national strategies for terrorism and infectious disease are reactions to PR releases and social media.  Obama and his team swing glacially into action after prolonged bouts of silence.  It would be one thing if this were to craft some grand strategy but too often its as though he is waiting for the story to go away.  When it doesn't, Obama and his team take the quickest action possible without regard to long term consequences.  In other words, they don't seem to realize they reacting to the very same PR mechanism that they should have mastered.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Expect the Unexpected, unless you are Obama

"If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail"--Heraclitus, ancient Greek philosopher

From warriors and competitive athletes to scientists and stockbrokers, everyone at some point is admonished to "expect the unexpected".  

Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Titans did not expect a reverse pass to Bengals QB Andy Dalton.  He scored and the Titans went on to lose the game.

The Secret Service did not expect a soldier with PTSD would jump the fence at the White House.  They also did not expect an armed person to ride up on the same elevator as the President of the United States.  NPR just announced the resignation of Secret Service Director Pierson.

A hospital did not expect someone to show up in their ER who had travelled to West Africa.  Despite showing symptoms of having been exposed to ebola he was sent home.  It was only when he came back was he guaranteed.  This happened because only certain people knew what to look for and this person did not get the word of the patient's first visit.  We may now ebola breaking out in Texas.

Of course the most famous case of not expecting the unexpected was the rise of ISIS.  The President was quick to throw all of the intelligence agencies under the bus on 60 Minutes, saying that "they" had underestimated the threat posed by ISIS.  The President of course immediately came under fire for missing 60 percent of the intelligence briefings.

"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"--Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four

It appears President Obama's complacency or smugness that he is so much smarter than everyone caused him to not to expect the unexpected, therefore his staff (including the Secret Service and Secretary of Health) aren't looking for the unexpected either.  Otherwise why did Mr. Obama give the ebola virus 3,000  chances to get over here (as it turns out, it may not have needed his assistance)?

The Secret Service has become lax because their Commander In Chief is lax.  He is too quick to dismiss threats so of course his security detail is likely to follow suit.  When his lax assessment of ISIS came back to bite him, he cobble together a sort of "Rebel Alliance" to strike at ISIS.  Unfortunately when you are forced to react, you tend to overlook things.  In this case, we aren't certain the effectiveness of the airstrikes since there is a dearth of intelligence assets on the ground in Syria.

The airstrikes are supposed to be hitting things like the oil refineries in Syria that are being controlled by ISIS.  So far, reports are that they only refineries being hit are the mobile ones that are easily replaced.

What unexpected, improbable things is Mr. Obama missing?  Ebola is high contagious and has never had the opportunity before to come into contact with lots of healthy, young people who have not been exposed to it before in their entire history.  As a result, it may burn out quickly or may rage like an inferno.  The CDC is just not big enough to handle something like this.  He needs to start acting like this could explode instead of firing his Secret Service director.

Next unexpected, improbable thing he is missing is ISIS and Syria may become united as a result of the airstrikes.  This could become an even larger threat.  Even if that doesn't happen, what happens if the airstrikes are successful and the Iraqi Army defeats ISIS in Iraq?  Do they all head back to Syria and overthrow Asad?  What happens then?

Obama's desire to allow all of the immigrants in without medical screening means now there are over 400,000 undocumented aliens each with the potential to set off a pandemic (flu, tuberculosis, SARS, hepatitis, etc).

There has been one beheading and an attempted second here in the US by recently converted Muslims (although in keeping with ignoring the improbable, these cases are not being referred to as acts of terrorism).  Increased airstrikes will mean more attempts at beheading but of course, these are not acts of terrorism so there is no connection.

How will Obama continue to miss these unexpected, improbable things?  He threw the entire US intelligence service under the bus blaming them for underestimating ISIS.  Congratulations, now no one wants to be the messenger who has to tell the emperor that he isn't wearing any clothes.  They will all be here after Obama leaves office, his final two years will be absolutely miserable.

Unfortunately, this also means troops will be placed into harm's way without any though to long term objectives.  Regular citizens may not be exposed to deadly, contagious diseases.  Or they simply be the victim of a beheading.  ISIS or al-Qaeda may finally get the momentum to launch the next 9/11 and with the intelligence agencies playing ostrich (just like their boss), who is going to say anything?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The New Boogeyman

What is the boogeyman?  According to Wikipedia, the boogeyman "is a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults or older children to frighten bad children into good behavior. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, he has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror. Parents may tell their children that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them. Bogeymen may target a specific mischief—for instance, a bogeyman that punishes children who suck their thumbs—or general misbehaviour, depending on what purpose needs serving. In some cases, the bogeyman is a nickname for the Devil."

Today, the boogeyman is the radical Islamic terrorist.  Like the boogeyman, Islamic terrorists are non-specific and ever.  First it was al-Qaeda, then the Taliban and now ISIS (or ISIL or Islamic State).  ISIS went from being a non-threat to now a major threat to the US (Iraq now warning of an ISIS attack using home grown militants to attack New York and Paris).  The new boogeyman even cuts off the heads of journalists.

Some say the new boogeyman was given life when President Obama pulled out the troops from Iraq and failed to provide support to Asad protestors.  This is too simplistic as it misses the history of Iraq (consisting of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions controlled by the former Baath party), the fact that the US supported al-Maliki (whose anti-Sunni policies were ignored), and the fact that ISIS consists of more than just pissed-off Syrian Sunnis (many of the militants have been recruited from Europe, Asia and even the US).

Just like the boogeyman, the Iraqi government was scared into behaving but it was too late.  The Iraqi government had lost territory and now needed the US military to force ISIS out of Iraq.  The incursion of ISIS into Iraq and the requisite land-grab meant ISIS would be less focused on causing trouble for Asad and the Syrian government.

The boogeyman next jumped out of Obama's closet in the form of opinion polls.  He appeared indifferent an unprepared for sudden change in the abilities of ISIS and his popularity, along with the Democrats, dropped.  Not a great thing heading into the mid-term elections so a plan was unveiled to use airpower but avoided putting boots on the ground (even though at least 1,600 troops are already back on the ground in Iraq).

The airstrikes in Iraq were not going to be enough to take out the boogeyman so the Obama administration decided it was time to let everyone know how scary the boogeyman really was.  Assessments started to materialize showing how dangerous ISIS was to the US (umm, where were these before hand when the President called them a "junior variety team'?).  The only way to protect the US from this boogeyman was to go after them in Syria.

To lessen the appearance that these assessments were just created to allow the US to strike Syria, the Obama administration recruited UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia into conducting strikes as well.  Eyebrows should by raising as the UAE is the only nation to have flown counter-terrorist airstrikes AND why would sovereign Arab nations be inclined to strike another sovereign Arab nation at the behest of a Christian nation that one could argue was the cause of the whole mess in the first place?

The photos and videos of the airstrikes, a mainstay of the media since Desert Storm, show the precision of the strikes.  Of course one has to wonder how many of those targets may have been also important to the Asad regime and not just the boogeyman.

ISIS is the perfect boogeyman as pictures of its militants show some are Caucasian, meaning "Holy Smokes, Batman!" anyone, even your next door neighbor, could be an ISIS militant!  In response, DHS has tried to recruit retailers to report "suspicious" activity (a bit Orwellian but given DHS present doesn't have a cyber-warfare chief, there may be no one there do anything with the data).

Now comes another boogeyman, the one that the US has historically gotten wrong.  By striking targets in Syria, ISIS and Asad may find more in common and decide to unite.  Or ISIS may grow as more Sunnis are displaced by the bombings.  Regardless, what the US tends to always get wrong is what happens next?

We've drug Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar into a conflict with Syria (I know, we are only striking ISIS in Syria but bear with me).  What are the histories amongst these countries and could we have started to destabilize the region as a result of this?

Will other nations now take sides with Syria and strike back at our allies?  Could this move embolden Hezbollah to strike Israel?

If we force Asad out (which has been a goal of the Obama administration for years), who is going to take his place?

While Obama fights the ISIS boogeyman, it takes the attention away from the ebola outbreak that isn't getting any better.  He sent 3,000 troops to Liberia but it remains to be seen exactly what they are expected to do.  We really need to be asking what happens when ebola breaks out here?

Obama has already stopped talking about the annexation of Crimea but apparently Putin doesn't lose focus as quickly.  Russian Bear bombers and now fighters have been increasing their activities along our airspace.  Combine this with some very suspicious drills the bombers were practicing a few weeks ago (flying profiles that would be same if they were to launch cruise missiles) and you wonder if Russia isn't the real threat and ISIS is just to divert our attention.

The boogeyman is a story told to children by parents to frighten them.  Unfortunately, too often kids find out that instead of just being a scary story, there really are such things as monsters.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book review, "Sleeping with the Crawfish"

Writing a blog has led to some interesting experiences.  In the past, I’ve been invited to attend a local bloggers convention, asked to be a panelist at another, and receive numerous emails from public relations firms offering to set-up interviews with their clients.  I’ve corresponded with other bloggers, authors and professors over the years on a wide range of topics.  Now I’ve been approached to review a mystery novel.

The offer came at a good time.  My head hurts.  World events are making me more cynical about our President and his administration.  We are using our best weapons to take out a so-called threat to the US that only a few months ago, even the President was referring to as “a junior varsity” team.   Suddenly the junior varsity team is now the biggest threat to the United States.  Doing the review offered me a mental-health break.

The title of the book is “Sleeping with the Crawfish” by D.J. Donaldson.  Here is a synopsis of the plot from the publisher;

“Andy Broussard, the plump and proud New Orleans medical examiner, obviously loves food.  Less apparent to the casual observer is his hatred of murderers. Together with his gorgeous sidekick, psychologist Kit Franklyn, the two make a powerful, although improbable, mystery solving duo.

Strange lesions found in the brain of a dead man have forensic pathologist Broussard stumped.  Even more baffling are the corpse’s fingerprints.  They belong to Ronald Cicero, a lifer at Angola State Prison… an inmate the warden insists is still there.  Broussard sends psychologist Kit Franklyn to find out who is locked up in Cicero’s cell.  But an astonishing discovery at the jail and an attempt on her life almost has Kit sleeping with the crawfish in a bayou swamp. And Broussard, making a brilliant deduction about another murder, may soon be digging his own grave.”

“Sleeping with the Crawfish” is a fast paced thriller.  The author, D.J. Donaldson, is a retired professor of anatomy and neurobiology and not surprisingly, the science used in the story is very detailed but easy to understand.  He imbues the character of Kit Franklyn with a similar impressive scientific skill set that she uses to infiltrate a mysterious biotech firm. 

Dr. Broussard, the medical examiner, is by far the most interesting character with a rich background of interests.  He is worldly as well as scientific but manages not to take himself too seriously.  He is not a ladies man but this very characteristic almost causes his downfall.  When not noshing on his favorite lemon ball candies, he is most at home hanging out at Grandma O’s with his cronies playing practical jokes on one another.  He has an affinity for Louis L’Amour novels as well as antebellum architecture.

Together he and Kit try to solve Cicero's murder which only leads them to a much more complicated plot involving corrupt officials and a mysterious biotech firm.  Throughout "Sleeping with the Crawfish" is Broussard's hope that Kit will find back the self-confidence that made her such an invaluable part of his office.  Kit is quite certain that her previous self-confidence was unfounded. The two try to navigate an eclectic cast of characters as they try to solve the murders.  The story is well paced and offers the reader a good feel for New Orleans and Memphis culture.

My only complaint is that it wasn’t clear to me if the characters exist in today’s world or some prior time.  Donaldson seems to have set his characters in a technological anachronism.  While they have computers, they don’t have cell phones (much less smart phones).  That would be okay but one character refers to the Internet although no one seems to actually use it.  Documents are still stored on “computer disks”.  Characters are always offering to “reverse the charges” on long-distance phone calls, a courtesy younger readers may not even understand. 

The lack of modern technology creates some situations that frankly would be very hard to explain given today’s digital reality.  The characters may exist in some earlier timeframe or the author may have chosen to de-emphasize digital technology for the sake of creating some added tension. (Note: the publisher just informed me that this story was written back in the mid-90s, hence the lack of digital technology.  The author felt that adding smart phones and such to the story would drastically change the way the events occurred. I agree but I'll leave my review as written.)

The references to an earlier case that traumatized Kit Franklyn, makes me wonder if this anachronism wasn't explained in a previous book.  Still as someone who uses the Internet and digital technology on a daily basis, I found this a bit distracting.

Despite this, I would still recommend “Sleeping with the Crawfish” if for no other reason than the chance to get know Dr. Broussard.  He is someone you wouldn’t mind sitting down to a bowl of shrimp etouffee with and hearing him wax nostalgic about New Orleans architecture.