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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Fatal Flaw of Obama's plan and how it impacts other allies

Two things are going that will have a profound impact on the US ISIS strategy.

The first was yesterday's hedge by Gen Dempsey, "if that fails to be true (if a new international coalition fails to defeat IS), and there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of US military ground forces". (BBC).  There are already 1,600 US troops on the ground in Iraq acting as military advisors.  It is interesting to note the following recent description of the role of military advisors;

"The Combat Advisor Mission Defined. The combat advisor mission requires US officers and NCOs to teach, coach and mentor host nation (HN) security force counterparts. This enables the rapid development of our counterparts' leadership capabilities; helps develop command and control (C2) and operational capabilities at every echelon; allows direct access to Coalition Forces (CF) enablers to enhance HN security force counterinsurgency (COIN) operations; and incorporates CF lethal and nonlethal effects on the battlefield", CPT Corry Scott, Army Times

Military advisors live and fight with the host nation.  Obviously our troops will be shooting ISIS bad guys but it also means they could be engaged against Syrian troops as well.  And that's not a good thing…the US isn't the only nation to use military advisors.  During the Vietnam war, the Soviet Union and China provided advisors and training to the North Vietnamese. In 2014 this means Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea and even China could become involved providing training and advisors to ISIS as well.

Thus far, the coalition Gen Dempsey refers to currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, France, Australia and the United Kingdom (more about the UK in moment).

Saudi Arabia is not interested in drawing the attention of any outside influences to their people so their support will mainly consist of funding and basing rights.

Qatar has a very small military but has provided tremendous support through basing rights (Al Udeid air base and As Saylitah army base).

While Jordan has announced its support, internally Jordanians overall don't support the US strategy.  Therefore, don't expect much in the way of military support.

The United Arab Emirates has a sizable military and has already conducted airstrikes against Libya.  Along with the basing rights at Al Dahfra air base, the UAE will be an important part of the coalition.

Australia is already sending F-18 fighters and 600 troops.  Australia continues to be an important part of US coalition missions.  They are a very modern, effective and professional force.

The French remain an enigma.  They are capable but their politics keep them from really being a major partner such as the Australians, British and Emirates.  France is not part of NATO and often the other coalition partners have a disdain for the French (at least from my experience in Qatar in 2004).  France has had numerous internal clashes with the Muslims living in their country.  Any involvement of French forces will have to be tempered against the potential for mass rioting in France.

The British are of course the No. 1 ally for the US but this brings us to my second point.  The vote for Scottish independence could seriously cause the level of support by the UK to be curtailed this time.  The British military was starting to drawdown but should Scotland become independent, they will have to rethink these plans (costing millions of pounds they may no longer have with the loss of Scottish tax revenue).  Should Scotland become independent, look for the Basque to make similar demands (causing the French to perhaps reduce their commitment to the coalition).

But if you look, this is the same cast of coalition partners as before.  No new partners have been added and this is the flaw with the Obama plan and why Gen Dempsey had to make his hedging comment about troops on the ground.  The Arab nations are not much in favor of going after other Arabs and Secretary Kerry is about the last person you have try and build more coalitions amongst the Arab states.  Example, two notable tepid reactions were from Egypt and Turkey.  The former being a major partner of the US was on terror and the later being a NATO member.  This quote from the NY Times pretty much sums that up;

“As a student of terrorism for the last 30 years, I am afraid of that formula of ‘supporting the American effort,’ ” said Diaa Rashwan, a scholar at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded policy organization in Cairo. “It is very dangerous.”  NY Times

In 2010, Gen. Austin advised President Obama against withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq, recommending that the president instead leave 24,000 U.S. troops (down from 45,000) to secure the military gains made in the surge and prevent a terrorist resurgence (Washington Post).  Had this advice been followed, it may have prevented ISIS from gaining territory in Iraq in the first place.  The interesting question will be to see how troops remain after this latest operation concludes (and when it does).

Meanwhile, if you are a Pacific Rim ally you have to be asking yourself what has happened to the pivot to Asia?   If you are Mexico, you may be asking yourself what happened to border relations and immigration reform?  If you are South America, especially Argentina, you just go ahead and form UANSUR (Union of South American Nations) and have dialog with Russia and China since your neighbor to the North continues to ignore you and treat you like a bunch of peasants.

3,000 troops are heading into harm's way of a different kind in Liberia.  US troops are the most highly trained, best equipped and most professional forces out there BUT they are no less susceptible to contagious diseases than anyone else.  All it will take is one slip-up, one failure to completely follow protocol and US troops will come down with ebola (and/or any other contagious disease that may also be raging over there at the same time).  Worse case scenario is this happens towards the end of the troops rotation when they have not shown any symptoms and come back home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Objectives without a plan

If you were only to read the NY Times, you might think "The End Times" have arrived.

First Roger Cohen's op-ed piece, "The Great Unraveling", paints an even gloomier view of events than most.  He threads the beheadings of the two American journalists (James Foley and Steven Sotloff) and British aid worker, the US air strikes in ISIS (objectives with no plan according to Cohen), the breakout up of the United Kingdom over Scotland's independence, the "fear" of Putin losing more to the West (hence the annexation of Crimea).  The modern world has started to devolve in Cohen's opinion and no one is really in a position to do much about it.

Next is a piece on the Obama administration sending 3,000 troops to fight Ebola in Liberia.  Along with news that the spread of the disease has the CDC so worried they have ordered 5,000 body and 160,000 hazmat suits, it seems only a matter of time before we see people bleeding out on the streets of New York and Atlanta.

The NY Times follows those two gems with another alarm, this time a story that tends contradict itself stating the "threat" of ISIS coming through our "porous" border with Mexico.  The NY Times piece is actually based on report from Judicial Watch (which both the FBI and DHS refute) that there has been "chatter" indicating ISIS cells in Mexico plans to drive vehicles loaded with explosives across the border and ram then into targets throughout the Southwest (I guess they have seen the new Mad Max trailer).

Wow, seems like time to start heading towards your bug-out site!

Cohen's piece did the best job of looking at things from a global perspective.  The Obama strategy for dealing with ISIS is only looking at it from the perspective of eradicating a terrorist group.  Going after targets in Syria is almost assuredly going to result in conflict with Syria.  What Cohen seems to miss is the potential for Russia to become involved in what happens between Syria and the US.  The beheadings are horrifying but that's just the point, terrorism as performance art.  Its working too as Obama is now on the defense from his own citizens.

Instead of worrying about getting Jihad Johnny, go rescue the other hostages first.  That shuts down the theater for Jihad Johnny, then let the spooks find him and put several 9mm or 5.56mm rounds into his face.  Make sure his face getting smashed by bullets makes it out on to social media unlike when they killed bin Laden.  The announcement that US has stuck ISIS targets near Baghdad just doesn't have the same impact as seeing the hostages rescued and the knife-wielding terrorist getting his.

But as Cohen points out, that would a plan behind the objectives.  Somehow hunting for a terrorist who likes to behead civilians is supposed to make the other problems go away.  What if going after ISIS in Syria turns Asad and ISIS into partners?  Minimally it will extend US efforts, at worst make ISIS striking the US a far more realistic possibility (perhaps even armed with chemical weapons).

Washington is bragging because Jordan has joined the fight.  Truth of the matter is King Abdullah had no choice as his regime was next for the Shiites.  It remains to be seen if this announcement is a true compensation for the withdrawal of Iran's support.

To Cohen's point about the "unraveling" of the UK, Scotland independence is not the end of the United Kingdom.  However, Scottish independence does raise some questions about the future of the military in the UK.  Scottish regiments have traditionally been a major part of the British military.  Their loss means an automatic reduction in the size of the British military.  This comes at an especially bad time with NATO now trying to stand-up its Rapid Reaction force.  Even if Scotland remains, the cost to help maintain the Rapid Reaction force will come close to 2% of the GDP.

The other problem for the British military is if Scotland becomes independent, there goes their nuclear bases.  Where will the British Navy park their boomer subs?  All of this coming at a time when NATO nuclear forces may need to provide a greater level of deterrence to Russia than ever before.

Now we come to the other problem the NY Times points out.  The ebola outbreak is now beyond the control of West African medical personnel so now the West must once again save the "Dark Continent".  The problem is that US forces really aren't set up to deal with something like this.  Don't be fooled, the real reason for troops on the ground is to make sure that West African resources don't fall into the hands of Russia or China.  There is money to be mad in a widespread outbreak and contractors such as Kellog, Brown and Root (KGB) and its former parent corporation Haliburton are sure to be there in force.  Food, medicine and supplies will be the reason given for their presence but watch how these companies will remain in place once the outbreak burns out.  Nothing breaks down red-tape like an outbreak of a deadly virus.

ISIS attacking out of Mexico does not make a lot of sense.  There are Border Patrol agents, DEA agents, Customs agents, plus Texas National Guard, Texas Rangers and Arizona Rangers already patrolling the "porous border".  Not to mention some unknown number of trigger-happy American citizens (referred to a militia in the media) also patrolling the border.  Any attack launched from that border has a low probability of success and a very high probability of ISIS operatives being shot repeatedly by grinning American citizens.  ISIS is about theater in which the are the stars, they would not want to risk becoming the victims.

That is not to say ISIS will not use all of the commotion on the Mexican border to their advantage.  While we look to the Southwest, we forget that there is 4,000 miles of almost uncontested border to the north.  The likelihood of success is far greater if the try to sneak in from the North.  Chicago and New York City are much easier to reach from the Canadian side.  Canada is not a densely populated land mass making it far easier to hide and wait for orders.

Either way, that assumes ISIS needs to get in.  From the composition of ISIS, they seem adept at recruiting from a cross-section of different nations.  Why risk failure in trying to sneak in when they could just recruit from people already here?

Car bombs are certainly effective and difficult to detect.  But what if ISIS, or another group for that matter, decided to take a page from the US?  Drones are readily available and could deliver a decent payload into say something like a power station.  Drones can fly below radars and our fighter interceptors would be particular challenged to take out a drone as it flew over a populated city or suburb.

All of this gloom and doom will give DHS and FBI additional reasons to watch everyone even more closely than they do now.  Whether or not they have gotten any better at figuring out the terrorist from the ordinary criminal or disgruntled citizen remains to be seen.

So no Mr. Cohen, its not an unraveling as much as a quickening of events.