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Why the Attack on Syria?

I won’t mince words: Trump’s decision to launch missiles into Syria is a disaster.  In reactions across the internet I am seeing justifications but in no way do the advantages come close to outweighing the costs.
I will address a few:

Trump wanted to intimidate China and North Korea
I doubt the Chinese president is easily frightened and making Kim Jong Un too nervous or desperate could turn Seoul and then the whole Korean peninsula into a smoking crater.

Russians and Syrians had time to evacuate/runways weren’t destroyed etc.
It’s still an act of war on another nation’s territory.  You don’t get brownie points or gold star stickers for playing nice at war.  These measures prevented immediate escalation to actual war but has worsened relations that were already pretty bad for no real reason.  If the goal was to get rid of ISIS why is the US attacking the people who were successully getting rid of ISIS?

That’ll Shut Up the Media About Russian Conspiracy Theories!
This didn’t stop Trump in the election when he was far more vulnerable, it certainly wasn’t going to stop his presidency. Wiretapping ploys and Rice unmaskings were already effectively countering the fake hysteria. Nothing about this relatively small problem required a risky foreign policy move.

Trump showed those pansies he’s not another wimpy Obama!
Trump got elected in part because his opponent was openly agitating for war with Russia and Syria that no one wants.   Obama and Hillary’s disastrous Syria policy helped ISIS form in the first place! Now we’re back to square one after spending nearly two years on the election?

The Syrians were gassing their own peoplez! Look at the cute dead kidz!
We all know this was just an excuse.  It’s irrelevant whether it’s fabricated or not. Trump’s whole America First campaign was a reaction to this kind of moralistic world policing.

The most rational possible reason I can think of for this idiocy is Trump has to make some concessions to the neocons or they would have just let the democrats filibuster Gorsuch indefinitely. 

Trump’s administration desperately depends on getting new justices into the supreme court.  For millions of American voters who did not like Trump, that’s the one issue that pushed them over the edge.  Furthermore, he desperately needs to break the impasse that is preventing him from acting decisively on immigration, the single biggest issue that put him in power.

I recognize it’s a tough situation, a sacrifice of some kind may have been necessary to grease the wheels, but I do not think this sacrifice was worth it.
The optics of attacking Syria right as Hillary came out and asked for it, with all the neocons celebrating afterwards is terrible.

It has just been openly demonstrated that no matter who you vote for, you still get pointless bombs and wars in the Middle East while the same old elites pat each other on the back.
Over $100 million dollars worth of cruise missiles just got dumped on a distant land most Americans could care less about for no real gain.
These conspicuous displays of waste while dams are crumbling and highways are burning down at home starts to sound a lot like just another chorus of “let them eat cake.”

So now Gorsuch is in, a key victory for Trump.  But the meta is even more important.
Now that Americans have seen appointed federal judges can block anything they don’t like…
Now that they’ve seen you get war and bombs in the Middle East no matter who you vote for…
The whole democracy really starts to look like a thinly veiled fiction.  And if that last veil gets stripped away, judges are just silly ugly old people in robes playing make-believe and all you have left is force.

From the start of his campaign, Trump shrewdly sought to curry favor with the military.  He understood if he was going to go against the entire political establishment, he would need solid backing to stay in power against contrived coups.

Unfortunately, we might be discovering a hard truth that neo-con politicians are just the political arm of the military top brass.  

Generals tend to be establishment to the core and incestuously in bed with military industrial contractors.  So perhaps we’ve found the limits of what voting can accomplish.  
Some grudging concessions on immigration and jobs perhaps, but the flow of trillions to contractors who pretend to design fighter planes and wars in the interests of the US’ biggest arms customers must continue.

The problem is the country is being bled dry and the farce is becoming obvious to millions.  Generals can’t really seize power directly until their troops are willing to fire on fellow citizens and if they tried that, they’d find their authority doesn’t go as far outside the beltway as they think.

So Trump still has considerable bargaining power even though he’s under a lot of pressure—if he wants to use it.  In retrospect perhaps we can now see the coils tightening.  Flynn replaced with someone more in line with the innermost circles and now possibly Bannon getting edged out of favor?
At this time all we can do is wait and see what happens next.

The Trump Era And Iran

Iran hasn’t been a major expansionist power since the 17th century.  The modern state of Iran is a pale shadow compared to any of the empires across milennia based in the Persian homeland.
There frankly isn’t much reason for the United States to make Iran a top foreign policy priority.  They may eventually get nukes but Pakistan, a state infinitely worse than Iran already has nukes and the world hasn’t ended yet.

Aside from influence over Middle East client states, the US and Iran have no real conflicts of interest.  Rivalry with Iran was largely manufactured by US meddling in Iranian affairs.  For some bizarre reason the US establishment just can’t get over the fact that their Shah didn’t work out 40 years ago and that they need to move on.  It’s not unlike their inability to adjust to the fact that the USSR no longer exists.

President Trump, as of this writing, has just fired his national security advisor, Michael Flynn.  There are many flimsy-sounding official reasons for the dismissal but I suspect it is not without coincidence it comes shortly after Flynn put Iran “on notice” after the test launch of a missile.

Iran responded by launching more missiles and the US was again left looking foolish and impotent.
It looks like Trump took Flynn’s advice regarding Iran, but perhaps had his reservations because he made Flynn publicly own the announcement rather than doing it himself and taking the credit.

When Flynn’s sabre-rattling backfired, Trump may have decided to pull the plug even though he must understand that the optics are damaging to his administration.

 He acted similarly many times firing staff during his campaign with everyone saying he was finished and his organization falling apart.  These kinds of plays shouldn’t surprise us by now.

The open belligerence expressed by Flynn, when backed by no credible threat, makes no sense and makes the situation worse.  We need only reflect on how W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ needlessly inflamed and encouraged his designated enemies.

Why on earth would anyone want to keep their enemies “on notice?”  Why not keep them guessing about their relationship with the US and always leave room for negotiation?  I remember how neocons and cuckservatives revolted when Obama merely said he would be willing to “talk to Iran.”  What kind of national leaders could express outrage at conducting diplomacy, a basic function of state?  This is the sort of childish idiocy an adult like Trump has to tear out by the roots.

Iran is a state with paranoid tendencies as one would expect of a land that has been under the influence of foreign powers for the last 200 years and invaded from every direction by every group for thousands of years.  Their nation lies at a natural geo-political crossroads so their government naturally has a hardliner temperament somewhat similar to that of Russia.  The key distinction that the US misunderstands is their outlook is primarily defensive in nature.
Beyond a buffer client zone in the Shia regions of Iraq along with its Shia holy cities, Iran really doesn’t seem to aspire to that much at the moment.  They have proxies all over the Middle East, but more to destabilize Sunni powers they fear than anything else.

I actually think Obama had the right general policy direction even if he was forced to by circumstance.  When his pet Syrian revolutionaries blew up into ISIS he went crawling on his knees to Tehran begging for them keep an independent Iraq in existence on paper at least.  The price was that he had to make humiliating concessions.

I think he still could have done a better job of playing the situation, though, considering he was paying the Iranians to do what they desperately wanted to do anyway.  I have to give him credit though for at least opening a dialogue when no one else in the establishment would.

The Western powers can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that Iran as the central power of Shi’ite Islam with its own great share of the petroleum market is the natural enemy of Sunni powers.  The potential for playing them off against each other should be obvious.

The US had its chance to take the Sunni side of that divide when they backed Saddam Hussein as a relatively secular Arab Nationalist leader of Iraq.  Had diplomacy been conducted with a more realpolitik understanding back then, perhaps Iraq would have been allowed to absorb Kuwait as an ally’s reward after their hard-fought war with Iran.
Perhaps that extra infusion of oil money would have enabled America’s then-ally to go back and pose a greater threat.

But that’s alternate history and now it actually makes more sense to play Iran against the Sunni Middle East and thereby have some leverage over them from behind the scenes.  At the very least, it makes sense to defuse decades of pointless hostility with Iran.  
If the US had wanted to pursue that route, it already could have with a strong ally before it invaded that ally twice, deposed its ruler, and left behind a yawning power vacuum that has caused endless headaches ever since.

At present, Iran aligns with Russia to the frustration of the establishment, but this connection need not exist.  Historically, Russian and Persian powers have been bitter enemies that have fought many wars.  Their co-operation is far from inevitable.  Theirs is an alliance made necessary by American intransigence.  As the US drove the Iranians into the arms of the Soviet Union, it now pushes them towards Russia.  If it were to become a foreign policy goal to divide them, it ought not to be that difficult.  Just encourage both to have more ambitions in the Caucasus.

For the time being, Iranian-Russian cooperation has been beneficial in keeping the Middle East from descending into complete chaos while for once the US can watch from afar as someone else puts in all the blood and sweat.

US establishment rhetoric toward Iran has frustrated me for years.  Their stupid heavy-handedness in all things has destroyed their credibility until even a non-politician TV billionaire can step in and push them aside.  Some inflammatory statements about Crimea aside, I am hoping Trump has the sense not to get drawn into the cult of unilateral, irrational belligerence.

Update 2/17/17: Was the Flynn firing also a ploy to draw out and expose enemies within the state and intelligence agencies?  Very intrigued to see what happens next.  Like in the election, Trump keeps people guessing, as he should.

Trump Foreign Policy: Post-Unilateralism

Coalition, or no, whether other nations were willing or not, the brand of America has been built on unilateral foreign policy.  The world’s only superpower was also the world’s policeman.
Power, however, is a tool and as with money even great amounts of it are easily squandered without clear objectives and a sensible strategy.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as the ultimate legitimation of unilateral diplomacy, an eternal blank check for Wilsonian exceptional interventionism at the “end of history.”

Every president since Reagan doubled down on this nonsense until it reached a climax of absurdity under George W. Bush.  Obama finally toned it down a little bit, because he had to.  Meddling went on unabated, but with most of America’s once abundant international political capital finally frittered away there was only so much he could do.  By the end of his presidency he was a laughingstock openly mocked by the Chinese leadership, insulted by the leader of the Philippines, and regarded with thinly veiled contempt by Russia.

Trump leads a reaction to a political establishment that has been utterly discredited by its decades of relentless ineptitude and failure despite holding every possible strategic advantage.
It has been clear since Trump’s campaign he envisions a US that conducts foreign policy as a nation among nations, not as a bombastic world police that clumsily throws its weight around.

This will mean, thank goodness, far less meddling in the affairs of other nations and a restoration of balances of power.  By wielding power with a lighter hand, it will become possible to accomplish far more.

The US can begin to create a post-exceptionalist, post-unilateral world by simply withdrawing US military interference.
Having US bases while limiting the military power of the host countries has increased the burden on the US while merely infuriating neighboring powers needlessly.

If the US removes most of its troops and involvement in NATO it forces EU nations to spend far more of their wealth on defense.  If Europe insured itself against Russian aggression, Russia would possibly be more amenable to talking about its interests elsewhere…

With a stable balance of power between the EU bloc and Russia, the US could have more constructive conversations with Russia regarding its extremely long border with China.  China is the only world power with potential, besides a real United States of Europe, to be in the same league as the USA.
America and China are presently economic partners joined at the hip, but we must think towards the long game.  Even as the US-Chinese relationship exists now, why not encourage other powers to contain them, giving the US more bargaining leverage?
In light of this, the complete obsession of the USA’s establishment with the Middle East and anti-Russian sentiment is perplexing.  A major foreign policy coup of the 21st century will be to split Russia from China as Nixon once split China away from the Soviet Union.

America could also withdraw from Japan forming a new, more equal relationship and encouraging Japanese re-armament and cooperation with Taiwan to counterbalance Chinese naval ambitions.
Hopefully, a post-exceptional international order would see the US and Europe able to freely operate with the emerging great power of China hampered by its nervous neighbors.  Why meddle when we need only encourage them to do what serves themselves?  The Daoist maxim to “do without doing” will be very appropriate in coming years.

Regarding Korea, it is ironic that if the US renounced its military commitments in the South, it’s possible the Chinese would become suddenly more amenable to discussing phasing out a client state of North Korea they have no special love for, but have kept around as a buffer against a clumsily over-aggressive US.  Add some diplomatic pressure from  neighboring powers, and perhaps an understanding could be arrived at where none is possible now…

Much of the benefits of a post-unilateral foreign policy come from simply undoing the heavy-handed status quo that counter-productively plays at imperialism.  From now on we may see the US doing more with less or in other words, “under budget and ahead of schedule.”

Brookings Institute Talk on Russia and America

I attended a talk today at the Brookings Institution about the future of Russian-American relations.

Naturally there was considerable focus on current issues such as Syria and Snowden being given asylum, and how it might affect the upcoming G20 summit.

I didn’t wonder about it much, really.  There’s nothing in Syria that’s central to Russian interests and Snowden, while a nasty diplomatic slap in the face, does nothing to change the larger situation.

I was more interested in bigger political and economic developments and where they might be headed.

Interestingly, the experts pretty much all agreed that the present political order in Russia is dependent on Putin’s cult of personality – that without his influence there would be nothing to hold Russia’s oligarchs together.
And – there is no plan for succession should something happen to Putin tomorrow…

They addressed how Putin’s main objective with his anti-American gestures is to boost his popularity at home.   His anti-American posturing has a huge appeal to his base – Russia’s working classes.
The urban middle and upper middle class has little loyalty to Putin, often protesting him in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so it’s only natural Russia’s ruler tailors his image to the vast majority he relies on.

While Syria is, relatively speaking, a sideshow, the fate of former Soviet republics is not.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, among Russia’s first concerns is to bring countries like Ukraine closer to Moscow and prevent them from aligning with Western Europe.

If we look at the numbers, though, it seems to me Russia’s agenda is doomed to fail.

Russia’s entire economy is worth 1.8 trillion.  This is enough to make it one of the world’s bigger economies, but to put Russia’s imperial goals in perspective, Italy’s economy is considerably bigger at 2.2 trillion with 1/3rd the population.

Let’s pretend we are Ukraine for a moment:

Which would we align with:  A 1.8 trillion Russia or a 17 trillion European Union?!

Not to mention, Russia’s economy to this day is based heavily on commodities like natural gas rather than skills or tech.
Indeed, one subject to arise during the question and answer session with the experts was brain drain from Russia…

With no Soviet Union any more that can keep their best talent captive, skilled Russians are increasingly ditching their home country for places like Silicon Valley.  And Russia itself with its feudal oligarchs and powerful crime lords tends to be very unfriendly to commerce.
So long as Russian small businessmen are parasitized by protection rackets and foreign investors are confronted with corruption, their economy is not likely to become truly “modern” any time soon.

A main theme of the talk was to ask what Putin really wants and how to get Russia to work more closely with US objectives.  Even the experts seemed to regard Putin as a mystic, inscrutable, Eastern Czar.
If we look at the numbers, though, it seems clear why the US can’t seem to get Russia to budge.

Relatively speaking, the US really is not that important to Russian interests so it simply doesn’t have that much leverage.
The vast majority of Russia’s foreign trade is with the European Union and with China in a distant second place.   Commerce with the US takes a comparatively puny 4th or 5th place with just a few percent of the total.  Also, the US is just about on the other side of the planet from Russia’s major cities while China and Europe are much more immediate neighbors.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that US requests take a back seat compared to more immediate concerns.  What decisive advantage does America offer in exchange for Putin’s cooperation?  Putin is a pragmatist, so clearly what he’s being offered isn’t worth as much as he gets from slighting the US to boost his domestic approval ratings.

The economic reality on the ground is that Russia is already just a big commodity provider for the EU, and thus in every meaningful sense, already part of Europe.
If we look at the facts, Russia as a modern great power, is pure fantasy.

During the talk, there was mention of a new, more Western generation of Russians just waiting for the older oligarchs to die off.  Such a generation is bound to reconcile Russia’s political reality with the economic reality.
Instead of trying to keep states like Ukraine from being sucked into Europe, Russia will itself be sucked into the Euro zone.

Even if Russia somehow remains an aloof oligarchic kleptocracy, it will still be useful for its resources as a lesser partner of Europe.

Graph Russia Trade Partners

The Rest Are Not Rising After All

BRICs map

Brazil, Russia, India, China. The so-called BRICs.

“Over 50 percent of them(Americans), according to a Gallup poll conducted this year, said they think that China is already the world’s “leading” economy, even though the U.S. economy is still more than twice as large…

The notion of wide-ranging convergence between the developing and the developed worlds is a myth…

Of the roughly 180 countries in the world tracked by the International Monetary Fund, only 35 are developed.  The markets of the rest are emerging – and most of them have been emerging for many decades and will continue to do so for many more…

There were a few pockets of countries that did catch up with the West, but they were limited to oil states in the Gulf, the nations of southern Europe after World War II, and the economic “tigers” of East Asia…

It was only after 2000 that the emerging markets as a whole started to catch up; nevertheless as of 2011, the difference in per capita incomes between the rich and developing nations was back to where it was in the 1950s…

Other than being the largest economies in their respective regions, the big four emerging markets never had much in common.  They generate growth in different and often competing ways – Brazil and Russia for example are major energy producers that benefit from high energy prices , whereas India, as a major energy consumer, suffers from them.  Except in highly unusual circumstances…they are unlikely to grow in unison…

Russia’s economy and stock market have been…dominated by an oil-rich class of billionaires whose assets equal 20 percent of GDP, by far the largest share held by the super-rich in any major economy…

…looks back to say the seventeenth century, when China and India accounted for perhaps half of global GDP…

China’s population is simply too big and aging too quickly for its economy to continue growing as rapidly as it has.  With over 50 percent of its people now living in cities, China is nearing what economists call “‘the Lewis turning point'” the point at which a country’s surplus labor from rural areas has been largely exhausted…

One casualty will be the notion that China’s success demonstrates the superiority of authoritarian, state-run capitalism…

Although the world can expect more breakout nations to emerge from the bottom income tier, at the top and the middle, the new global economic order will probably look more like the old one than most observers predict.  The rest may continue to rise ,but they will rise more slowly and unevenly than many experts are anticipating.  And precious few will ever reach the income levels of the developed world.”

Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012 Broken BRICs: Why the Rest Stopped Rising, Ruchir Sharma

Did the USSR Defeat Germany Because of or In Spite of Stalin?

“The Tartar Yoke” Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Moscow

Long story short:
In the 1300s, Moscow, a mediocre(The Kremlin was a wooden fort) city state rose to power because they served as lackeys of the Golden Horde.

A clever Muscovite prince hung out in the Horde’s capital in Sarai, actively currying the Khan’s favor and snapping up all the best opportunities as they came. Quite simply, he was the best at sucking up to the boss.

Moscow’s big break was finally getting appointed as the Khan’s personal tax collector and enforcer over all the other Russian states. Everything Ivan “Moneybags” I did from then on was backed by the threat of the Khan’s armies. Game. Set. Match.

LINK

Russian principalities under Golden Horde map

Moscow wasn’t exactly the center of things early on. Just one of many towns in one of many fractious principalities all of them tributaries to the Golden Khan in Sarai.

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