Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?

What’s Scots for “Nuclear Weapons?”

No Cross of St. Andrew here

This is the year. 2014 will mark the historic referendum in which Scotland, yet again, votes whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Having read Halting State, Charlie Stross‘ fantastic novel set in the nation of Scotland in 2018, there’s a whole realm of aesthetic and imagination and possibility associated with the prospects of an independent Edinburgh. Others are just as interested: Tyler Cowen makes one of the economic arguments against Scottish independence, and Tom Ricks asks all the questions, But part of my interest lies in more prosaic matters: namely, where do the nukes go?

Scotland’s defense policy would likely align much more closely with those of Norway and Denmark than with its southern neighbor. Between North Sea oil and Arctic issues, Holyrood’s posture and attention would be directed entirely upwards. And of all the realms in which nuclear weapons might not have such great utility (especially not as large submarine-borne countervalue weapons), the Arctic is probably #1. If NATO plays it cool and avoids major engagements, then a single brigade might just cut it. But otherwise that might be wishful thinking.

The Firth of Clyde is of major importance to the Royal Navy. But the shipbuilding contracts there are likely to depart along with UK forces. These could be repurposed by Scotland for new construction to augment its few unarmed fishery protection vessels (this, of course, depends on what Edinburgh is able to successfully wrest away from London). But more importantly, the Clyde is the heart of the British nuclear deterrent.

Right now, the UK’s four Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs are based at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in the Clyde, with additional support coming from RNAD Coulport. And this is no abberration; Scotland has been critical to the UK deterrent from its inception. In 1963, when the Royal Navy was looking into acquiring Polaris from the United States, it drew up a short list of ten candidate sites for basing nuclear submarines. Of the ten, six were in Scotland. But what about the others? Would they play host to an atomic arsenal in the 21st century?

Continue reading

Argo Fuck Yourself

So Kevin B. Lee decided to publish a total #slatepitch of an article on the terribleness of Argo. It doesn’t really need to be argued with, but I already wrote most of this, so here we go.

Kevin Lee has completely missed the point. Argo is not a film about the Iranian Revolution, nor is it a film about Operation Eagle Claw, nor is it an attempt to explore the rule of the Shah or the CIA’s complicity in it. It’s essentially a heist movie, with a historical backdrop, “inspired” by a real event. And it’s truly only about one event: those US embassy personnel who fled to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and the clever deception operation through which they were later exfiltrated.

All these other movies that Kevin Lee talks about? None of them are the film that Affleck sought to make. None of them are the film that he made. If someone else wants to make those, fine (and they probably should be made). But I absolutely hate it when filmmakers get criticized for not telling “the whole story” when the entire *point* of finding a small story in a much larger one is to make for a more compelling narrative.

You can make a World War II movie without addressing the Holocaust. Gladiator never directly confronted Roman slavery. Charlie Wilson’s War ends on a downer but without elaborating on subsequent events in Afghanistan (some of which remain pretty important) Black Hawk Down is a fine film without exploring the complete collapse of Somali central government. Air Force One certainly didn’t need to delve into the machinations of Serbian genocide and pan-Slav sentiment to be entertaining.

Sometimes history is fun, and makes for an enjoyable movie, regardless of surrounding events. Sometimes history is terrible, and we get Schindler’s List – a very good film unto itself. But not every film set in 2012 needs the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop, and Argo certainly doesn’t distance itself from the Revolution.

As one of my compatriots put it so succinctly, the tl;dr of Lee’s argument is “I wanted someone to adapt one of Chomsky’s books into a film! Now I’m going to have a temper tantrum because it wasn’t Ben Affleck!”

Oh, side note: Argo is a ton of fun, and you should see it.

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

Continue reading

Earning It

Prolonged American deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan have crippled the country’s ability to quickly respond to emerging threats and situations elsewhere in the world. Sheer logistics aside, the same stubborn logic that has maintained an American presence in Afghanistan would also preclude its redeployment on the grounds that American troops are vital to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan War.

But what happens when that might mean missing a genuine opportunity? The regime of Muammar Gaddafi, longtime sworn enemy of the United States, is in the midst of a particularly brutal crackdown against what appears to be a genuine democracy movement in that country. He has vowed to die a martyr, and what were peaceful protests have spread into legitimate civil war throughout the country.

The arguments against intervention in Libya are many, and are valid concerns. American officials – Robert Gates most prominent among them – have been offering constant reminders that establishing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace would be more complex and dangerous than is casually thought, and the next steps – the exit strategy – have yet to be fleshed out. (The question of international law seems somewhat less damning as Patrick Porter suggests – the Arab League and Libyans themselves have called for such a step to be taken.) But unlike the Bush-era misadventures in Central Asia, commentators are actually thinking about those issues now. Such a commitment as the United States might undertake in Libya requires careful thought. But it requires more than just talk, too.

Who would such an intervention be supporting, exactly? What if the rebels lose the civil war? Will the presence of ground troops be established? These are all questions that need answering. But here’s the other crucial difference between the catastrophic error in Iraq, the open-ended disaster in Afghanistan, and this situation – Libyans are asking for it. Libyan officials who have dissolved ties with the Gaddafi government – including Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, Interior Minister Abdul Fatah Younis, and the Ambassadors to France, India, Poland, Sweden, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and the United States – are echoing calls for a no-fly zone. The governments of Britain, France, Portugal, and the Arab League have all recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing body of Libya.

Who’s more deserving of American military backing: an Afghan government that enjoys the support of neither its people nor the United States, in a country filled with people just waiting for American troops to leave, or those revolutionaries trying to overthrow Gaddafi in their quest for democracy? Even if the United States were to adhere to the coldest realpolitik calculation, in this case the devil we know is diabolical indeed. Gaddafi is responsible for the Lockerbie bombings, for attempting an enrichment program, and is guilty of the most horrific crimes imaginable against his people. It would be difficult to find an even worse devil. And even in that case, isn’t it time to pick the one that actually matters: democratic or US-friendly? By not articulating – or proving through its own actions – just which one is the driving force behind American foreign policy, the United States continues to look weak, ineffectual, indecisive, and hypocritical to the rest of the world. And it’s that kind of ‘soft power’ that it can ill-afford to lose.

Then again, the most justified intervention would probably be in Cote d’Ivoire to remove Laurent Gbagbo. That country, after all, has already held free and fair elections that ousted Gbagbo from the presidency. But Gbagbo has refused to step down, precipitating a civil war. It’s apparent that things have gotten out-of-control bad when refugees are fleeing into Liberia.

Limited resources require prioritization. And it would appear as if America is focusing all its time and energy, its  blood and treasure, on precisely the wrong theaters. Even when Afghans aren’t actively hostile to the American presence in their country, they’re not enthusiastic about it either. The waiting game is on. Whether the United States pulls out of Afghanistan in six months or six years, the situation there won’t change. Only the cost will.

Those who aren’t asking for help don’t need or want it. Those crying out for it surely do.

Housekeeping

So, wow. Two-thirds of the month of February have gone by already with nary a peep from this corner. I would like to change that; consider this a step in that direction.

Sometimes I feel like my ridiculous schedule and utter demotivation to write are all a nefarious plot on the part of [BIG BOX RETAILER] to work us so hard that we don’t have time to look for other jobs. At other moments I realize they couldn’t possibly be that coordinated, such as when they schedule me to close (until 10:30PM) the night before a mandatory 6AM meeting. Then it seems like they want me to quit.

But hey, at least I have a job, I suppose. Which is more than so many both here and across the world – especially across the world. I can’t help but wonder if in addition to our usual complacency, though, the reason America hasn’t exploded into similar unrest (don’t even get me started on the Rick Scott Walker asshole miasma that passes for normal politics in this country) is because of that huge gap between unemployment and underemployment. Even if they’re jobs without a future, is there some sort of voice in our heads that insists we’re lucky just to have even that, regardless of a stunted upwards mobility?

Because I keep coming back to Paul Mason’s twenty explanations for the Middle East uprisings, and one in particular:

At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.

For all their other horrible, horrible faults, the recently deposed dictators of the Middle East were at least pretty good at educating their younger citizens. Of course, the stagnant economies provided no outlet for those credentials, thus no jobs, thus [eventual] rioting. One can try to explain it as simply an overly universal education problem, but then the observer comes upon the United States and it all goes to hell. Because, here, it doesn’t matter what your degree is in or how many you have or even whether you’re actually talented. Despite our tiered educational system, of the Ivies, the liberal arts colleges, the state school – it matters less where you went than who you met while you were there. The world is split into McJobs and MegaJobs, and the latter is a rapidly dwindling crapshoot.

For all my ranting, I’ve tried to keep a relatively sunny outlook, but the days only seem to get darker. Any “recovery” in the economy is so imperceptible as to be non-existent, and there are few real signs of actual progress on any large scale. Do we have a future? Are we the Mason sociological type, even in the United States?

With mass layoffs producing better profitability, furloughs mandated on an even grander scale, and Watson beating humanity, it’s pretty clear that something like half the workforce is in fact entirely dispensable. Which then begs the question; there are no jobs in Egypt; none in France; none in the United States: so where are these jobs going to come from? Sometimes, they simply don’t exist – but this time there’s nothing to replace them.

Eventually, Americans will realize that. And then just maybe we’ll get off our asses and take to the streets. I don’t even know what that would accomplish, but at least we’d prove to ourselves that we’re paying attention, and that the system is broken.

So that’s where I’ve been recently. As for other events in the Middle East, I like some and not others. Capsule commentary:

  • Tunisa: great! Started it all. Looks good from what little I can tell.
  • Egypt: if the military can stay classy, good things will come. Probably. Maybe.
  • Bahrain: the King is such an asshole.
  • Yemen: I’m less up-to-date, but the United States looks particularly bad here and in Bahrain.
  • Libya: we already knew Gaddafi was an asshole.
  • Others: good luck, godspeed, and try to avoid getting shot.

And perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on recent events:

A War About Nothing

Seinfeld has already sparked books about nihilism, philosophy, bible study, and sociology, and a website on economics. And now, the ongoing narco-war violence in Mexico:

The Mexican narco-war may be the first real 21st-century war—a war that is, in the end, about nothing. Yes, there are regional and clan identities involved—loyalties of a sort to Tamaulipas, to Michoacan, to Sinaloa—but they are too fluid, too subject to betrayal, for the war to be defined as tribal. Yes, the Mexicans are torturing and killing one another over money and the smuggling routes that provide it, but much of the savagery, as noted, is over the smaller profits of the domestic market, the street corner, the sprawling colonia—savagery perpetrated for little real reward, and mainly for its own sake. Mexico’s war has no single propelling cause, no single objective, and certainly no grand ideology. It is a conflict of a post-political era. It belongs to an age of aggressive hyper-materialism. The drug lords are of course not alone in this. There are “legitimate” corporations all over the world whose only credo is greed and whose only iconic value is “the brand.”

In short, ‘why they fight‘ might be irrelevant. It might not even have a real answer, or a real reason – it is “a war of the digital age, fought as much on YouTube and mobile phones as it is in city streets and backroom torture chambers.” Even if it is a ‘narco-war’, drugs almost seem a byproduct, rather than a means or an end. They might just be another symptom. How do you even begin to combat such a phenomenon? Are there underlying root causes to be addressed?

Or is this just yet another sign of impending systemic breakdown? I’m leaning towards that. It’s sort of a ‘what’s the goddamn point?’ approach, which seems to explain more each day. Better stock up on your Toyota Hiluxes and your Gerber “hedge trimmer” machetes now.

Black Bloc = False Flag?

A group of protesters all wearing black destroy a police car as the authorities stood nearby. June 26, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

A comment on my (self-described) hilarious post on the wanton destruction of a Tim Horton’s during the G20 protests raises some interesting, if alarming questions as to their legitimacy. Now, any article from a site that has main categories like “US NATO War Agenda” and “Crimes Against Humanity” obviously deserves to be taken with a grain of salt – a massive grain of salt – but nevertheless its allegations that at least some of the ‘Black Bloc’ protesters are in fact undercover police officers seem to be partially borne out by their photographic evidence.

Some of the evidence offered, like the argument that one black-clad protester has the physique not of a “seedy ‘anarchist'” but rather “the fit strong body of a trained soldier,” seems subjective at best. Their main charge, that some of the Black Bloc-types are wearing the same heavy-duty combat boots as the riot police,  is much more possible. According to this line of thinking, the wanton destruction committed by the Black Bloc is an attempt to discredit the entire protest movement, a sort of ‘false flag‘ operation.

There are two main problems with this, the first being that reaction to the Black Bloc is tending more towards the “those guys are ruining an otherwise perfectly legitimate protest,” rather than something like “all protesters are this capable of violence!” At the same time, the credibility of photographic evidence in any form has been called into doubt (especially with the release of the near-magical Photoshop CS5). So I don’t know how much stock I put in the thesis, but it’s worth thinking about.

One other possibility is that it’s a reverse false flag op, and that the Black Bloc protesters specifically sought out the same issue combat boots as the police are using. The targets of their demolition could point in either direction; they are utterly predictable:

For the most part, their targets are specific and symbolic: As the crowd tore across Queen St., they hammered police cruisers, attacked banks and other corporate companies. Yet they left a record store, a local tavern and an independent hardware shop untouched.

This is all more food for thought than any kind of accusation. One more idea: would we want to use any kind of false flag operations in Afghanistan? Are the Taliban doing so? Perhaps it’s an idea best consigned to the Cold War; one can only hope this is the case.

The Spill

The Deepwater Horizon oil platform burns in the Gulf of Mexico.

As per my standard operating procedure, I should be studying for my final final exam on Russia/Eurasia tomorrow morning but will procrastinate a little more (productive procrastination, that’s my motto). Instead, I have a number of thoughts to offer on the ‘British Petroleum’ spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s worse than we can imagine.

The Oil Drum has had some of the best recent coverage of the disaster from a technical and policy perspective. It also has some of the better commenters I’ve seen anywhere on the internet. Via BLDGBLOG comes a particularly chilling one:

The well bore structure is compromised “Down hole”.

That is something which is a “Worst nightmare” conclusion to reach.
[…]
All the actions and few tid bits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking.
[…]
What does this mean?

It means they will never cap the gusher after the wellhead. They cannot…the more they try and restrict the oil gushing out the bop?…the more it will transfer to the leaks below.

It also means that the entire reservoir area is growing weaker and weaker underwater, and that (here comes the absolutely terrifying part) “fracturing and a complete bleed-out are already underway. Rumors also suggest a massive collapse of the Gulf floor itself is in the making” [emphasis mine].

That means 2 billion barrels of oil just dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. It means an ecological disaster of biblical proportions as the oil is carried around Florida and up the eastern seaboard. It will end entire industries, ways of life, and…it’s pretty much unfathomable how bad this will probably be. We don’t even have the technology to stop the leak at this point; the best we can do is siphon off as much as possible and pray it doesn’t get worse. Continue reading

Libyan Thugs in the Heart of London, Cont’d Again

This is the last post I’ll write on the subject (probably), but it makes for a good distraction from studying. The exam’s tomorrow. This is how I roll.

Anyways, I got a lovely thank-you email from one of the Libyan protesters at the LSE last week. In addition to my writing, they made sure to credit my good friend the Hybrid Diplomat for his coverage of the event. The email also included links to a number of photo galleries that ‘their’ photographer had taken. Here is the Gaddafi contingent, glowering at the protesters and trading insults:

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's coterie of bodyguards and thugs at the London School of Economics, May 26, 2010.

Compare that with the size of the protest:

Libyan men protest the Gaddafi regime at the London School of Economics, May 26, 2010.

More pictures are available in galleries here and here, though since receiving the email it looks like someone flagged the sites as “attack sites” (I would assume someone tied to the Gaddafi regime). They’re perfectly harmless. Also available as a special treat is a video of yours truly sitting with Fathallah, the victim of a Libyan beating:

Please distract me in any way possible; it’s only 16 hours until the exam.