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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Afghanistan: Too Corrupt To Save?

The Daily Escape:

London street art by Bambi  – 2017 photo by Wrongo. Since then, she has done another version, where the bag says: “I love Meghan”.

On October 7, 2001 The US military with British support, began a bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That mission was called Operation Enduring Freedom. So, what has endured in the 18 years since we started bombing the Taliban? Mostly corruption. The Economist has a damning report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians, according to the United Nations. America’s air force dropped more bombs in 2018 than at any other point in the war. Despite that support, the government is slowly losing ground. It now controls barely half the country’s territory, albeit two-thirds of its people.”

US forces have shifted their strategy to trying to inflict maximum casualties on the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any time since its ouster from power in 2001. This is the same as the “body count” strategy that we tried in Vietnam. But the Taliban are winning, despite America’s best efforts. We’ve backed a corrupt government that the Afghan people do not trust. The Economist illustrates that point:

“A group of middle-aged drivers explain the difference between the Taliban and the government. Both groups take money from drivers on the road, says Muhammad Akram…both are violent. But when the Taliban stop him at a checkpoint, they write him a receipt. Waving a fistful of green papers, he explains how they ensure he won’t be charged twice: after he pays one group of Talibs, his receipt gets him through subsequent stops. Government soldiers, in contrast, rob him over and over.”

We started down a path of nation-building in Afghanistan 18 years ago, but the government in Kabul doesn’t provide basic services. It has a huge security apparatus, and a big bureaucracy, but where it matters, the State, in the words of the US DOJ, is “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional”.

No place in the country is completely safe. At boozy parties in Kabul, rich Afghans share gallows humor about the impending arrival of the jihadists at their gates.

The Taliban are no prize. Their brutal attacks make them deeply unpopular, especially in Afghan cities. But The Economist says that in rural areas, they are seen as efficient and willing to challenge arbitrary government power. According to a UN study, Afghan land disputes account for 70% of violent crimes. In government-controlled areas, well-connected figures often grab land for themselves. The Taliban, in contrast, have judges who deal with such cases brutally, but with less corruption.

The Taliban expects poppy-farmers to pay taxes on their crop, but they also provide seed capital and other support. In many areas, they help to police water use, managing disputes and limiting the over-exploitation of groundwater. Over the past few years the size of the opium crop has grown remarkably—especially in Taliban-controlled areas.

Another Economist article shows that solar panels are transforming the landscape of southern Afghanistan. Farmers used to run their pumps with diesel generators, but fuel was very expensive. Now they can pump water all day using solar.

Only 12% of the country is suitable for growing permanent crops, but since 2018, 3,600 square kilometers in south-western Afghanistan were reclaimed for cultivation from the desert by using solar power to pump water to the fields. From the Economist:

“As many as 2.5 million people…now live in what used to be desert. The price of desert land has soared, from as little as $35 for a jereb (about 2,000 square meters) to over $1,000 now. That has made landowners rich, not to mention politicians and senior police officers.”

The reclaimed territory is mostly beyond government control: Many of the settlers are hostile to the State.

This has also brought a big cost for the environment. Drinking wells are increasingly contaminated with nitrates from fertilizers, which farmers have spread near the water pumps. Shallow wells have gone completely dry. If the groundwater is exhausted, millions of Afghans will have to move.

The US and the Taliban have been negotiating directly since October over a possible American withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorists. The Afghan government has been excluded from these talks, and they are concerned that they may be forced into a coalition government with the Taliban.

The Trump administration wants out of Afghanistan, and may not care much about who in the current government survives. The latest round of talks concluded on May 9th, with what the Taliban described as “some progress”, but the pace is glacial, and may not lead to anything.

Wrongo has been saying for years that we need to leave Afghanistan. Why are we still there? Vietnam proved we could win all the battles, get higher body counts, and still lose the war.

Will we “win” in Afghanistan? No, it’s unwinnable. You can’t win when you’re on the side that’s even more hated and corrupt than our “enemy.”

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Trump and Bolton Screw Up Geopolitics

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Reflection Canyon, Escalante arm of Lake Powell, UT – 2019 photo by Aaryeh95

(Reminding readers that this is the last column until Sunday when cartoons will be back on the menu. We are attending our second college graduation of the spring.)

The Week reports that President Trump is having second thoughts about sending troops to Venezuela. He complained to aides and advisers that:

“he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman, President Nicolás Maduro, with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, The Washington Post reports. ‘The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around National Security Adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.’”

“He was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman”! Who could’ve seen that coming? Just about everyone but Trump, and the neocons around Trump. The Neocons are batting 1.000, again proving themselves to be miserable failures at geopolitics. They continue to mess up geopolitical foreplay on the way to their real goal: Regime change and war.

By listening to Bolton and Pompeo, Trump has placed Venezuela more directly in the hands of Russia. It seems that Trump’s 90-minute phone call last Friday with Vladimir Putin was meant to talk Trump out of regime change in Venezuela. A secondary benefit for Putin may turn out to be that Trump handed Moscow a permanent Atlantic military presence in South America.

What’s the upshot? It looks like Maduro was pushed into Putin’s arms. Maybe Trump and Putin can cut a deal to sort this out without a crisis.

It looks possible that Maduro got an offer from a smarter, stronger player in the geopolitical game: Vladimir Putin. Republicans are bound to be disappointed. Blowing up Maduro’s regime was high on the Bolton and Republicans’s list.

Of course, regime change is always on their list. They want regime change in North Korea. In Syria. In Venezuela. And in Iran. It would be the perfect distraction from all the talk about Mueller and impeachment. They think war is a great campaign issue for 2020.

Now, Bolton and Pompeo have shifted their focus to Iran.

On Sunday, the National Security Council announced that we were sending another carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory” warnings from Iran. Bolton discussed the intelligence, saying that Iran appeared to be gearing up for war.

Help me. We all know that Russia is also more friendly with Tehran than we are. And Putin has already achieved near-total victory in Ukraine and Syria, and possibly has already bagged Venezuela. We were never going to be buddies with Iran, but will Tehran now move completely into Russia’s orbit?

To date, it looks like the worst thing Donald Trump has done is to hire John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Of course, Bolton’s track record as a war-monger preceded him, so what’s happening now was predictable. The Neocons, including Bolton, want a war with Iran, to remake the Middle East.

Their project to remake the ME saw America destroy Iraq and Afghanistan. It fueled American regime change aspirations in Syria. It brought about the destruction of Libya. It’s also underway in Yemen.

What the Neocons are doing helps a new alliance to form. Its key members are China and Russia, but Iran is a part of it as well. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) is meant to create routes to Europe and a Chinese-led trade zone. It is meant to bypass sending ships through the straits of Malacca (which the US can shut down any time to strangle China’s trade). It looks like the land parts of the B&R will move goods more quickly to Europe, but not as cheaply, as sea transport.

So the question is: Can Bolton talk Trump into war with Iran? Will Trump lead us into a fatal miscalculation? Trump is walking a tightrope without a net.

Even without a war, the US’s continued abuse of its privileged position in the world payments system to sanction countries like Iran and Venezuela implies that China and Russia will develop an alternative payments system. It’s inevitable.

It’s only a matter of time before international payment alternatives become viable enough that major countries will simply ignore US sanctions.

The US looks to be the big loser in the geopolitical game of chicken that Trump is playing.

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US Army Woefully Unprepared

The Daily Escape:

Double Arch, Arches NP, Utah – photo by Bryol. The size of the people in the foreground give an indication of the mass of these formations.

Are you aware that the US Army is transitioning away from the counter-insurgency mindset that we have used for nearly 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or that we are now focusing on fighting large-scale, conventional battles against foes of equal strength?

Who are we talking about when we say “foes of equal strength”? It means countries with large land-based traditional armies. One new objective is to train Army personnel to fight underground. That doesn’t mean in the claustrophobic Vietnamese tunnels our GIs fought in during the 1970s, it means urban warfare in subways, large tunnel structures, and sewers. These days, most big cities all have utilities, water, electricity, sewer, and communications underground.

It also means fighting in subterranean facilities. Military.com estimates that there are about 10,000 large-scale underground military facilities around the world that are intended to serve as subterranean cities.

Some of these targets are in North Korea, where vast infiltration tunnel networks can move 30,000 NK soldiers an hour directly to the border with South Korea. China and Russia also have vast underground networks, so presumably, they might be targets as well.

In a way, this is old news. In addition to Vietnam, history reminds us that during the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russians used their sewer systems to spring surprise attacks behind the German lines. In Iraq, US troops conducted search missions in tunnels.

In late 2017, the Army launched an effort costing more than $500 million to train and equip most of its 31 active Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to fight in subterranean structures that exist beneath dense urban areas around the world.

There are big problems, though. The US Army hopes to meet its goals for urban warfare by 2022, but Military.com says most young sergeants don’t know how to maneuver their squads:

“For example, sergeants in the majority of the Army’s active brigade combat teams (BCTs) don’t know the importance of gaining a foothold when leading squads on room-clearing operations, according to a series of report cards from the service’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, known as the AWG.”

It gets worse. They can’t do basic land navigation: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Additionally, the Army’s Non-commissioned Officer Academy is seeing sergeants routinely show up for courses unable to pass a basic land navigation course using a map and compass.”

And even worse. sergeants show up with:

“…poor physical fitness and body composition, and….not able to qualify as Marksman using backup iron sights.”

This means that many sergeants can’t shoot straight without either an optic lens, or laser pointer on their weapon!

This is surprising. Sergeants are the backbone of the Army. They are supposed to be the best-trained, best motivated members of their units. The basic unit in the Army is the squad, so when sergeant squad leaders can’t do basic land navigation, or shoot a gun without technology, we have a huge problem.

Remember that for the past 17.5 years in Afghanistan, we have been fighting an untrained enemy wearing flip-flops. Of course, they know how to shoot without optics. Maybe that’s why they won.

Wrongo was in the US Army in the late 1960s. At that time, a Corporal (E-4) or a Sgt. (E-5) had to know squad and fire team maneuvers, hand signals, placement of personnel in attack and defense, and fire direction (how to direct remote artillery or planes to a ground target).  All of that required map reading. So, Wrongo finds this disturbing, as should everyone else.

If using a map, protractor and compass is too difficult for today’s sergeants, then we need more/better training. Infantry soldiers must be proficient in these skills. Even though today’s soldiers rely on modern technology, those technologies sometimes fail, and sometimes tools like GPS aren’t available.

For example, we know that GPS won’t work reliably in a tunnel or sewer, so we need a continued emphasis on knowing how to use those non-technical solutions that worked back in the day. All Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) should be able to meet these basic infantry leadership requirements. All soldiers should be taught land navigation, regardless of whether they wind up in front-line combat units or support units.

We are being deluded by our military brass. We are no more ready to fight an urban war than we were ready to fight a counter-insurgency war in the Middle East. And why urban wars? What scenarios will get us into a fight in the big cities of Asia, or Europe? Or Russia?

Here’s a thought: How about the US doesn’t get involved in a foreign war where we have to “occupy” a city?

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Iran: Trump Is All Gambit, No Plan

The Daily Escape:

The Mitten Buttes, Monument Valley, UT – photo by Nathan Fitzgerald

Here we go, a new gambit on Iran. The Trump administration moved on Monday to isolate Tehran economically and undercut its power across the Middle East by not extending the waivers of sanctions against countries purchasing Iranian oil.

Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the waivers which allowed eight countries to import Iranian crude oil without being subject to US sanctions will expire on May 2nd. The eight countries included are China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Greece, Italy and Taiwan. From the NYT:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing that current sanctions waivers…would expire on May 2, clearing the way for American economic penalties against all companies or financial institutions that continue to take part in transactions linked to buying Iranian oil.”

This decision to stop Iran’s biggest customers (China, who buys half of Iran’s oil exports) along with Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey, is a strike at Tehran’s lifeline. They export one million barrels of oil daily, and it accounts for 40% of their GDP.

Immediately, there were repercussions. Bloomberg reported that Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a choke point in the Persian Gulf, while the Washington Examiner reported that the US has positioned a second aircraft carrier in the region.

What Trump seems intent upon is regime change. He campaigned against further wars in the Middle East, but now is catering to Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom, along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, are intent upon toppling the Iranian regime.

Trump’s Iran obsession makes us look terrible. Taking pages from the Iraq War playbook, Trump and Pompeo paint a picture of a rogue, outlaw, terrorist regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and whose “malign activities” are the cause of all the chaos in the Middle East.

This is straight from the neocon playbook: The one they’ve used before. They are building a case for war. America wants Iran out of Syria. We condemn their support for Hezbollah. We say that Iran supports the Houthis in Yemen, against our great friends, the Saudis.

This latest move is called the doctrine of “Maximum Pressure”. The goal is to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero. Will this gambit force the capitulation, or collapse, of the regime? That seems difficult to believe, but Trump and Bolton may have teed up a war.

Think about this: America is now decreeing to the rest of the world that only we decide which countries get to trade with whom. We’re telling China, the second largest economy in the world, that it lacks the sovereign authority to buy oil from Iran if it so desires.

Which do you think China will do? Both Iran and China appear to hold a better hand than the US. We can’t invade Iran and win. We can’t force China to do anything they refuse to do.

The rest of the world will have trouble understanding what Trump thinks the US can gain from this gambit, because there is no plan behind it. If Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, will we bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

If China, Turkey, India and Japan continue to purchase Iranian oil, will we freeze their dollar-denominated assets in the US? If this leads to the creation of a non-dollar global payments system, what happens to the dollar as the global reserve currency? Has anyone in the Trump administration thought about that?

Once, the US used its reserve currency status and clout (largely) for good. Now, it’s just more bullying by Trump. In the end, the Trump administration may achieve a new level of worldwide cooperation against a common enemy: the USA.

Aren’t Americans sick of this neocon warmongering? Americans don’t want to be drawn into yet another ME action. It isn’t an accident that Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, declared unequivocally in November 2002:

“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq…”

Is now the chief strategist behind Trump’s drive towards war, with Secretary of State Pompeo, happily riding shotgun.

It doesn’t matter that US intelligence, along with Israeli intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm that Iran is complying with the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Or, that the US invasion of Iraq is the principle cause of Middle East chaos today.

Trump officials will cherry-pick information, package it, and amplify it, exactly as the Bush administration did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

The real question is whether American voters will fall for this again.

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Should America Intervene in Venezuela?

The Daily Escape:

Bald Eagle on the Housatonic River, CT – February, 2019 photo by JH Clery

On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Trump was asked about Venezuela and whether he’d negotiate with President Maduro to convince him to exit. Trump put military intervention squarely on the table:

“MARGARET BRENNAN: What would make you use the U.S. military in Venezuela? What’s the national security interest?

DONALD TRUMP: Well I don’t want to say that. But certainly it’s something that’s on the- it’s an option.”

This seems to be part of a larger Latin American plan. The WSJ reports that the Trump administration’s plans include regime change in Venezuela, Nicaragua and eventually Cuba. This is a multiyear neocon project that has at least some bipartisan political support. It may require military force, as Trump indicated to CBS that he’s willing to consider. One thing that the WSJ reports is this:

“US law-enforcement officials say they have evidence Mr. Maduro directed state resources to create what they allege has become one of the most powerful international narco-trafficking operations in the world, and with links to Hezbollah, the Lebanese group designated by the US as a terror organization.”

So, there you have the first Western Hemisphere argument to “fight them over there, rather than fight them here”.

As we said on Saturday, nothing unites a country like a sovereign enemy on its borders. Venezuelans may hate Maduro, but they also hate the US. China and Russia may be worried about the $50 billion and $17 billion Venezuela owes each respectively. Turkey has also supported Maduro. Although they all are Maduro’s allies, it is unclear if they would be willing to help, should the US intervene.

The consequences of all of our former interventions should be screaming at us. But, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump seem deaf to the messages. Bolton said:

“We think stability and democracy in Venezuela are in the direct national interests of the United States right now…The authoritarian regime of Chávez and Maduro has allowed the penetration by adversaries of the United States, not least of which is Cuba.

Some call the country ‘Cubazuela’, reflecting the grip that Cuba’s military and security forces have on the Maduro regime. We think that is a strategic significant threat to the United States and there are others as well, including Iran’s interest in Venezuela’s uranium deposits.”

Maduro is no prize. The Economist reports: (brackets by Wrongo)

In the past five years GDP has fallen by half. Annual inflation is reckoned to be 1.7m%…which means that Bolívar savings worth $10,000 at the start of the year [will] dwindle to 59 cents by the end….People are malnourished and lack simple medicines, including antibiotics. Hospitals have become death traps for want of power and equipment. Blaming his troubles on foreign conspiracies, Mr. Maduro has rejected most offers of humanitarian aid.

Juan Guaidó, head of the Maduro opposition, and President of the National Assembly, has support from the EU, and the Lima Group of 12 Western Hemisphere countries (including Argentina, Brazil and Canada). The US recognized Guaidó early.

The question is, should we intervene at all? And if the answer is yes, how should we intervene?

The US is still Venezuela’s main trading partner. Last week, we imposed curbs on purchases of the country’s crude oil, and a ban on imports from the US of the diluents that must be blended with the extra-heavy oil from the Orinoco Belt to allow it to flow through domestic pipelines. The first hits Venezuela’s oil exports, while the second curbs their production. This will reduce revenue from oil exports by more than $11 billion.

By ordering that payments for Venezuelan oil be put in bank accounts reserved for Guaidó’s government, the US hopes to asphyxiate the regime, expecting that the armed forces will then switch sides to Guaidó.

Venezuelans face the dreadful task of having to topple their own government. This primarily means persuading their army to change sides. Other nations can pledge moral support to Juan Guaidó. But sanctions and US threats may prove counterproductive.

Venezuela poses no threat to US security. Since GW Bush, we’ve found excuses to attack Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. We’ve imposed economic sanctions on Russia, Iran and Myanmar. The gain for our security has been negligible.

Military intervention has become an occupational disease of America’s leaders.

The urge to help Venezuelans in need is natural. Doing nothing is painful and seems callous. But will intervening really help? Even states with despotic leaders are sovereign. They must make and correct their own mistakes, and ultimately, be strengthened by doing so.

Regime change in Caracas is one possible outcome of our intervention. Civil war is another.

It is a certainty is that American lives and money will be lost.

Trump must choose wisely if intervention is on the table.

Any bets on that?

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Saturday Soother – February 2, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Hoggar National Park, Algeria – 2015 photo by Amri Mohammed

The blog Political Violence @ a Glance posted an article, “Three Lessons from the History of Foreign-Imposed Regime Change” by Melissa Willard-Foster, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

She puts the Trump Administration’s support of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, in perspective. Despite the fact that while Trump was running for president, he promised to “stop racing to topple foreign regimes,” he’s now saying Venezuela’s president Maduro must go.

According to Willard-Foster, there is a long tradition by American presidents of attempting Foreign-Imposed Regime Change, or FIRC. She lays out three FIRC lessons from our history:

Lesson #1

The more fragile a leader’s political power is, the less likely that leader will cave in to foreign pressure. Weak leaders are difficult to coerce. If a foreign power demands change, the more the incumbent fears an attack by domestic enemies. The incumbent becomes very difficult to coerce.

But politically weak leaders often seem relatively easy to overthrow, and their domestic enemies are more than happy to help the foreign power take them out. Willard-Foster’s research shows that the probability of FIRC rises by 112% for leaders with at least two predecessors taken out by a coup, or rebellion in the past ten years.

Lesson #2

America’s overthrow of Panama’s Manuel Noriega demonstrates what happens when the domestic politics in the foreign power’s country make it politically feasible for the foreign power to take military action. Like Maduro in Venezuela, Noriega railed against US imperialism and broke off relations with the US. When crises escalate, a single incident can lead to military action, and that happened in Panama. When a US service member died in December 1989 after an encounter with Noriega’s forces, the Bush administration had the domestic political cover it needed. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, made the case for intervention. He argued: (brackets by Wrongo)

“There will be a few dozen casualties if we go [in]…If we don’t go, there will be a few dozen casualties over the next few weeks, and we’ll still have Noriega.”

The US decided that coercing Noriega wasn’t changing anything, but regime change by force could.

The risk of a US military escalation may explain why Maduro offered to negotiate with the opposition—he wants to avoid giving Trump justification for military force.

Lesson #3

The third lesson from the history of FIRC is that no matter how disastrous the last FIRC attempt was, policymakers still believe it will work this time. From Willard-Foster:

Whatever approach failed last is usually what policymakers avoid the next time. When George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s indirect approach to toppling Saddam Hussein failed, George W. Bush capitalized on the post 9/11 public mood for war to launch an invasion. The lesson Obama drew from the costly Iraq occupation was to avoid using troops to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The fallout in Libya then convinced Obama to avoid using military force in Syria, where he reluctantly funded the Syrian opposition.

Trump’s current Venezuelan approach is an indirect strategy, relying on economic and diplomatic pressure. Whether Maduro stays in power largely depends on the Venezuelan military. If Russia and China can blunt Trump’s economic pressure, Maduro may keep the military’s loyalty.

If China and Russia succeed in propping up Venezuela’s economy, Trump will have two options: Continue calling for regime change, while doing nothing about it, (as he’s doing with Iran) or employ military force. If protests grow, this will suggest Maduro’s position is weakening, which could cause Maduro to lash out, and possibly provide political cover for Trump choosing military force.

In supporting Guaidó, it’s unclear what path Trump will take. If, like Noriega, Maduro believes caving in to US demands will imperil his political (and personal survival), he’ll dig in.

But, a weakened Maduro appears, and still digs in further, the more likely it becomes that Trump will continue the tradition of forcibly toppling foreign regimes.

Time to move on from another week of “All Trump, all the time” to the anticipation of gorging ourselves during the halftime show of Sunday’s Super Bowl. You need to prepare for the chili, nachos, dips, chips and alcohol by relaxing today with a Saturday Soother.

Start by brewing up a strong cup of Honduras Las Flores Parainema ($22/12oz.). It is sourced by the Brooklyn NY-based Café Grumpy, an aptly-named vendor for our times.

Now settle back in a comfy chair, and take a few minutes to listen to Sarah Chang play Elgar’s888 composition, “Salut d’Amour, Op.12”, accompanied by Andrew von Oeyen, on piano. Chang is American, born in US, and raised in New Jersey:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here:

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Intelligence Chiefs Contradict Trump

The Daily Escape:

Edworthy Falls, Elbow Pass, Kananaskis, Alberta, CN – 2018 photo by sluis0717

Just when Wrongo was beginning to think we would make it to 2020 alive and in one piece, testimony by the US Intelligence Chiefs had quite a bit to say about how the world could still blow up. This from Booman: (Brackets by Wrongo)

“In a written report and [subsequent] congressional testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, the senior members of the United States intelligence community had some interesting things to say. The most important arguments they made directly contradicted their boss, the president.”

They said that North Korea is unlikely to give up their nuclear program, and that Iran is not currently pursuing their nuclear program. Trump is holding a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February. Last week, Trump said that the two sides are making progress in efforts to fully denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

The Intelligence Chiefs assess that Russia will continue to interfere in our politics and our elections. They think that ISIS is far from defeated. They reiterated what a report released to Congress last week by the Pentagon said, that climate change is a national security threat.

Now, the intelligence community doesn’t always get it right, but Trump is on the opposite side of each of these assertions. More from Booman:

“We’re supposed to have a chief executive and commander in chief who is a customer for this kind of intelligence. Our president is supposed to be the primary customer for these types of assessments.  But that’s not the situation we have in this country right now. At the moment, our president has taken public positions contrary to every one of the assessments…and he’s simply not interested in contrary evidence. He is certainly not interested in being contradicted.”

It’s a huge problem when Trump, who makes the final decisions on what we’re doing geopolitically, is fact-free when it comes to threats to our security. Fortunately, the Intelligence Chiefs seem willing to provide honest threat assessments, and testify about them before Congress.

But, there are people within the administration who support whatever Trump wants. Some are even willing to slant the information they provide to the press and to Congress if it supports the president’s stated position. Trump’s position has been that disruption is at the heart of his geopolitics.

In just the past few weeks, we’ve gotten quite a few things wrong. (h/t Arms Control Wonk)

  • On December 6th, the United Nations General Assembly rejected a US resolution to condemn the Islamic militant group Hamas for violence against Israel. The embarrassing vote, which required a two-thirds majority, was 87 in favor to 58 opposed, with 32 abstentions.
  • On December 12th, Secretary of State Pompeo blasted Iran at the UN Security Council and received no support from US allies for walking away from the nuclear deal. In fact, US allies Britain, France and Germany praised Iran for holding up its end of the bargain.
  • On December 21st, the US barely rounded up more votes than Russia on a Russian resolution at the UN calling for the preservation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The vote was 46 against to 43 in favor, with 78 abstentions.
  • On January 10th, Pompeo, speaking in Cairo, declared, “Let me be clear, America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.” The next day, the front-page headline in the New York Times was “U.S. Begins Syria Withdrawal, Amid Uncertainty Over Strategy.”
  • On January 14th, en route to Saudi Arabia, Pompeo declared he was “confident” and “optimistic” that he was nearing a deal with Turkey on a mutually agreeable exit plan from Syria. Later, Trump tweeted that he would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

On January 22nd Pompeo spoke to the assembled billionaires at Davos:

“Is this pattern of disruption a force for good or not? I’d argue this disruption is a positive development.”

Most of us would say that’s crazy talk.

The Intelligence Chiefs have done everything except sound an air raid siren about this administration’s foreign policy bungling. There’s no indication that the Senate Republicans have mustered the gumption to act on their alarm.

And now, John Bolton tells everybody that Trump wants to send 5,000 troops to Columbia as part of its failing Venezuela strategy.

In another ominous sign, Pompeo added Elliott Abrams, a neocon who was an actor in the Iran-Contra mess, as a Trump administration special envoy overseeing policy toward Venezuela. Maybe you remember that Abrams was pardoned for his Iran-Contra role.

Just two more neocons, completely lacking in principle, but flush with Trump’s authority to disrupt another part of the world.

Read the report, and then think about how it squares with Trump’s policy.

You’ll agree that this will all end perfectly.

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Grading Wrongo’s 2018 Predictions

The Daily Escape:

Military parade in Kremlin – October, 2018 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo dusted off his 2018 predictions and took a look at how he did. In the 23 categories, Wrongo had 16 substantially correct, and 7 incorrect for a 69.5% average. That would have been a “D” at his university. Of course, some grades could have been weighted more heavily than others, but we’re not grading on a curve here at Wrong U.

What follows are the 2018 prediction, followed by the 2018 result:

The US economy as measured by GDP will grow at greater than 2% for 2018.

  • Wrongo wins! The economy grew at an average rate of 3.65% in the four quarters through Sept. 30, 2018.

The US stock market as measured by the S&P 500 Index will end 2018 with little or no growth over year-end 2017.

  • Wrongo loses. Heading into Friday’s trading session, the Dow was down 6.4% in 2018, and the S&P 500 was off 6.9% for the year.

The Trump tax cuts will increase the deficit, and despite Paul Ryan’s best (or worst) efforts to push the country into austerity, that can will be kicked down the road for a few more years.

  • Wrongo wins! The Trump tax cuts increased the deficit to $1 trillion on an annual basis. Paul Ryan leaves office without destroying the social safety net.

The Democrats will not take control of either the House or the Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

  • Wrongo happily loses. The Dems took the House by winning 40 seats. They lost a net of two seats in the Senate to the Republicans.

Cyber and other forms of meddling by people who wish our democracy harm will continue in the 2018 elections, to broader effect than in 2016.

  • Wrongo loses. There is no real evidence that cyber meddling had a greater effect on the 2018 election.

Facebook and Google will be held to account for their failure to tamp down disinformation.

  • Wrongo wins! Both are under scrutiny for both their actions and failures to act in 2018.

Trump will continue to flounder as the leader of the Free World, while his “frenemies” in the GOP will continue to try to thwart him on domestic economic legislation.

  • Wrongo loses. The Trump tax cut was a big deal for Republicans, despite the fact that few of them felt that they could run on it in the mid-terms.

There will be some form of bi-partisan accommodation on DACA.

  • Wrongo lost, and so did the nation.

Trump’s public-private infrastructure deal will not pass the Senate.

  • Wrongo wins!

The House will pass legislation that messes with Medicaid, but the Senate will not.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal called for a $1.5 trillion cut in Medicaid, but it didn’t pass.

Trump will have the opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court Justice.

  • Wrongo wins, but America lost. We got Kavanaugh ‘ed.

Trump will have a serious medical issue in 2018, but will not leave office, or be temporarily replaced by Pence.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s health seems unchanged.

Mueller: By March, MAGA will mean “Mueller Ain’t Going Away”. The storm will crest, a Russiagate conspiracy will be exposed, and crud will fly everywhere. This could lead to the Democrats taking control of one or both Houses.

  • Wrongo wins! It looks like conspiracy, not the collusion Trump talks about.

A few additional Trumpets will go to jail, or be tied up in court. Trump will not be impeached by the 2018 Republicans. 2019 might bring a different calculus.

  • Wrongo wins! Mueller’s team has indicted or gotten guilty pleas from 33 people and three companies that we know of.

Tillerson and possibly other cabinet members will resign to “spend more time with family”.

  • Wrongo wins! At least 40 senior people including 18 who were cabinet-level, resigned.

Middle East:

Syria – by this time next year, the war will be essentially over. Assad will still be in power, and the US will be out of the picture. The Syrian Kurds will switch sides, and collaborate with the Assad regime.

  • Wrongo Wins! We’re pulling out, and the Kurds have switched sides.

Iran – the current protest movement will fizzle out. Neo-cons in Trump’s administration will try to bring us close to war with Iran, but cooler heads at the Pentagon will prevail.

  • Wrongo wins! The protest movement did fizzle. Trump ended our participation in the Nuclear Deal and we re-introduced sanctions. We’re no longer on speaking terms with Iran.

Famine and death in Yemen will continue to be ignored by everyone in the US.

  • Wrongo won, but the Yemenis and world lost.

Russia, China, and Iran will have a “come together” moment, possibly resulting in an agreement for mutual economic cooperation.

  • Wrongo wins! Russia and China are indeed closer together, what with Trump as a common enemy.

Russia will continue to face ongoing battles with the US, but Putin will persist.

  • Wrongo wins! Putin persisted.

Ukraine: The US delivery of anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian army will not cause them to begin military operations in the east.

  • Wrongo wins! We provided the weapons, they avoided attacks in the east.

Europe: The right-wing authoritarian movements in the Eurozone and England will become a larger factor in their domestic politics. Brexit will occur, and no one in the UK will be happy about the outcome.

  • Wrongo wins! Right-wing political parties are a bigger threat than ever throughout Europe. Brexit happened, with the final outcome still unclear, but no one is happy.

Will there be a war or “incident” with North Korea? Despite the scary politics, the Seoul Winter Olympics will keep the situation from escalating through June. The second half of 2018 could lead to some kind of incident between the US and NorKo, but will not be a nuclear incident.

  • Wrongo wins! There was no scary incident, in fact, relations have been slightly improved.

The year is almost ended, and we can’t pretend that America slid by with more than a D itself. Early in the New Year, we will make a series of predictions for 2019.

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Saturday Soother – December 22, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Two Jack Lake, Banff, Alberta, CN – 2018 photo by don_wilson

A perfect photo for the end of this week: Black ice, more than a foot thick, with very large cracks. It feels like America is on ice skates, without any of us knowing how to skate, stop, or change direction. And there’s those giant cracks.

We don’t have a permanent Attorney General, Defense Secretary, or Chief of Staff. The government is likely to shut down because the president wants his border wall. Paul Ryan’s last official act of the year was to cave in to the president on his $5 billion funding demand, and kick it to the Senate.

Stocks are having the worst December since the Great Recession. And Robert Mueller has indicted multiple members of Trump’s inner circle. Trump seems to be skating, too.

But Wrongo wants to discuss Ruth Bader Ginsburg (again). She underwent surgery at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two cancerous nodules removed from her left lung Friday at a New York hospital, the Supreme Court announced. There is no evidence of any remaining disease, says a court spokesperson, nor is there evidence of disease elsewhere in the body….In 1999, Ginsburg underwent surgery for colorectal cancer, and 10 years later she was treated for early stages of pancreatic cancer.

Apparently, the cancer was detected early because of scans taken after she fractured her ribs. Since there is no current evidence of metastasis, it’s possible that she will make a full recovery.

We’re all thinking the same thing when Ginsburg’s health takes a bad turn: That Trump could have yet another chance to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court, precisely when he doesn’t look completely in control of his administration, or his emotions.

But, America oddly seems to be ok with a government shutdown. And most people think that fewer troops in Syria and Afghanistan is a good thing. As Wrongo predicted on Friday, we will withdraw 7,000 soldiers from Afghanistan over the next few months. The Taliban rules more than half of the country and Afghanistan’s army is losing more personnel each month than they can recruit.

BTW, it was Sec Def Mattis who had urged Trump to increase the troops in Afghanistan from 10,000 to 14,000 at the beginning of his term. His retirement marks the second time in five years that Mattis has had a serious conflict with his commander in chief. President Obama fired him as Head of Central Command for urging a more aggressive Iran policy.

But, you want to get on with shopping online, wrapping gifts and decorating the tree. So it’s time for a little Saturday soothing. Start by brewing up a vente cup of Valhalla Java Odin Force Coffee from the Death Wish Coffee Company, in Saratoga Springs, NY ($15.99/12 Oz.). Death Wish has been featured here before, and says that they make the world’s strongest coffees. They also say that the Odin coffee is nutty, with a taste of chocolate.

Now settle back for a few minutes, put on your Bluetooth headphones, and listen to the “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber, performed without instruments by Belgium’s Vlaams Radio Koor (choir), with Marcus Creed conducting. It was recorded in Brussels in 2015, and is an arrangement by Barber of his Adagio for Strings (1936). This is typically done by a chorus with organ, or piano accompaniment, but here it is simply the chorus, and it is simply beautiful:

Wrongo thinks it is superior to the original piece with piano and strings. It must be very difficult to sing.

The lyric:

In Latin:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem

In English:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump Wants Out of Syria

The Daily Escape:

Interior of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain via Archpics

Wrongo is glad that Trump has ordered (what appears to be a precipitous) withdrawal of US troops from Syria. His Republican allies are in an uproar over the decision, comparing it to Obama’s leaving Iraq in 2011.

They are saying that we should be trading our withdrawal for something.  Wrongo isn’t convinced that keeping troops in Syria is somehow necessary for regional stability, or that we need to get something from Iran, or that we need to keep Russia from getting a win.

The WSJ says that what led to announcing a withdrawal was a call last week between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan opposes the US partnership with Kurdish forces in Syria, since he views them as a terrorist force intent on destabilizing Turkey. On several occasions in the past few weeks, Erdogan has threatened to launch an assault on the Syrian Kurds. The US has consistently relied on the Kurdish forces as the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS. From the WSJ:

On the call, Mr. Trump told Mr. Erdogan that he no longer wanted to spend money and time in Syria and preferred instead to focus his energy on domestic issues, said an official briefed on the call. Mr. Erdogan assured Mr. Trump that Turkey would continue the fight against Islamic State—and against the Kurds, the official said.

But there was more: Trump’s decision came hours after the State Department approved Turkey’s purchase of $3.5 billion in US Patriot missile-defense systems. Some analysts see the proposed sale as an enticement for Ankara to back off its previously announced plans to purchase a Russian S-400 air-defense system. So, US withdrawal from Syria looks like a kickback to Erdogan for buying $3.5 Billion in Patriot missiles instead of the Russian S400 missile.

The downside is that we are once again abandoning the Kurds to their fate. The Rojava Kurds live in Syrian lands that are contiguous with Turkey, and Erdogan’s plan is to occupy their territory. The Kurds will survive Turkish efforts to roll over them militarily only if they embrace the Syrian government.

Assad’s aim is to control all Syrian territory. He wants the Kurds to be an integral part of Syria, probably more integral than many Syrian Kurds would want.

There may be other side deals with Russia and possibly with Syria. We’ll learn all of them in good time.

Some of this is good news. We needed to make some sense of our occupation of Syria. We needed to do something to improve our relations with Turkey, and it was insane to try to occupy a third of Syria, which risked a possible world war.

From day one, America’s strategic error has been treating Syria as a subordinate part of our global Iran policy. Looking at Damascus through the prism of Tehran never allowed us to examine the risks and opportunities in Syria as they actually were. We never really developed a strategy for what we wanted in Syria, and that is why the Iranians and Russians (and ultimately the Turks) have ended up holding all the cards.

Those three knew what they wanted, and were willing to spend the resources necessary to achieve their goals, while sometimes having to compromise with each other. None of those things can be said for the US’s involvement in Syria. Our sole policy aim was the same old bipartisan consensus we’ve tried since the end of WWII: Get rid of the BAD DUDE in country X because he’s BAAD!

And let’s not worry about what trying to remove him does to the regional balance of power, or to innocent civilians, or to our own culpability in BAD DUDE’s badness. Rinse, Lather, repeat.

Obviously, bringing troops home from Syria is part of Trump’s plan for reelection in 2020. Maybe, Afghanistan will be next. We should expect to see him move left on many key issues over the next year.

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