Another Problem for Biden: Who Controls the Arctic Ocean?

The Daily Escape:

Cape Porpoise, ME – April 20, 2021 photo by Eric Storm

American has only two icebreakers that can operate at the North Pole. One is more than 40 years old, and the other is in drydock. This is a problem because the Arctic ice cap is melting, and many countries plan to use the Arctic Ocean as a much quicker transit route from Europe to Asia.

Why is this a big deal? Rockford Weitz, professor at the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program of Tufts University, has an article in The Conversation about the looming competition for control of the warming Arctic Ocean. He points to a recent voyage:

“A tanker carrying liquefied natural gas from northern Russia to China tested that shorter route this past winter, traversing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route in February for the first time with the help of an icebreaker. The route cut the shipping time by nearly half.”

It’s clear that even including the cost of having an icebreaker along for the trip, traversing the Arctic Ocean was cost-effective. The polar ice is melting quickly, so countries will need more icebreakers to help LNG tankers cross the Arctic.

Russia has 46 icebreakers and has 11 under construction. The US has three and has three under construction. Wikipedia says that the US icebreaker situation is currently so dire that the US Coast Guard is loath to send the working icebreakers too far north, because if one breaks down, it would almost certainly have to call for help from a nearby Russian icebreaker.

That demonstrates how bad US/Russian relations have become. At one time, both powers could cooperate on this kind of prosaic thing.

There’s more at stake. The US Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic. As waters become passable, that will attract both more shipping and more mineral exploration. Weitz also says that the competition for control of the Arctic has reached new levels:

“Russia is now attempting to claim more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Cold War-era Arctic military bases and recently announced plans to test its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic.”

It’s remarkable to learn that the US military has been caught flat-footed with the retreat of Arctic sea ice. The retreat of the polar ice cap and the opening of a Northern passage have both been well covered in the media for years. Yet, both the arms merchants and hawks in Congress somehow missed this profit opportunity?

More from Weitz:

“Congress put off investing in new icebreakers for decades….Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s ability to operate in the Arctic region, including responding to disasters as shipping and mineral exploration increase.”

Congress has authorized construction of three more heavy icebreakers at a total cost of around US $2.6 billion but has so far funded just two of them. They take years to build. A shipyard in Mississippi expects to deliver the first by 2024.

The US has one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, that can break through ice up to 21 feet thick. It was commissioned in 1976. While it is usually in Antarctica each winter, it was sent to the Arctic this year to provide a US presence, presumably to counter the Russians.

But the Polar Star’s crew had to fight fires and deal with power outages and equipment breaks. Our second icebreaker, the much smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, also suffered a fire on board in August 2020 and had to cancel its Arctic operations.

How is it possible that we spend roughly 10 times more on defense than Russia, but once again, we’re behind in a strategic situation? This proves that our defense procurement is corrupt. It has been for a very long time.

We have two problems. First, today’s Earth Day, and on its 51st anniversary, the Arctic Ocean is melting because of global warming. Despite that, the world’s saying: let’s all go up to the Arctic and produce more global warming. Second, our Defense Department has known for years that Russia had a big advantage in icebreakers, and that climate change would certainly open the area to competition.

What did the military and our Congress Critters do about these totally knowable things? As usual, nothing. American politics has become self-destructive.

Once again, the only skills the US Congress displays are obstruction and corruption. The beat goes on.

What did you expect?

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Russia’s Massing on Ukraine’s Border

The Daily Escape:

Red silo, Lansing, NC – 2021 photo by Greg Kiser

From Foreign Policy (FP):

“Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former US President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.”

This comes at a time when the administration is still conducting policy reviews on a new strategy toward Russia. So, is the Ukrainian-Russian “cold war” about to get hot?

Ukraine’s army commander Gen. Ruslan Khomchak says Russia has deployed 28 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, which would amount to 20,000-25,000 troops. Russian officials have not confirmed that, nor given any precise figures.

This Russian buildup in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions is new, but Russian “volunteers” have been helping the rebels since 2014. Here’s a map of the region:

Russia shares a long common border with the area claimed by the Separatists. At the same time, Ukraine has a very long border to defend. This explains why it has been a low-intensity conflict for the past seven years.

Naturally, this potential escalation alarms NATO and the US. It’s reported that a flurry of phone calls have been sparked between senior members of the Biden administration and both their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

FP quotes Jim Townsend, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense:

“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do….Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve?”

Ok, but the BBC reports that US forces in Europe were placed on higher alert, citing “escalations of Russian aggression” in the area, while Russia plays hardball:

“Russia has warned NATO against sending any troops to help Ukraine, amid reports of a large Russian military build-up on its borders. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would take “additional measures” if NATO were to make such a move.”

Sounds like game on for Biden. The Right-leaning Washington Times quotes Donald Jensen, of the US Institute of Peace:

“The Kremlin is testing Biden in a couple of places right now. That’s what the Kremlin does. It tests new presidents…”

Biden has also tested Putin. In addition to placing human rights abuse sanctions against Russia in March over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the administration has vowed to bolster US support for Ukraine.

It ramped up diplomatic efforts in Western Europe to halt construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

And while Biden moved quickly to extend the expiring New START nuclear deal with Moscow, he said in an interview he viewed Putin as a “killer.”

Russia has also conducted increased military activity in the Arctic. CNN reported that new imagery has revealed a major Russian build-up in a region that is now nearly ice-free due to changing climate patterns. They seem to be bidding to secure their northern coast, while attempting to dominate what will become a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Putin may not know what to expect from Biden but consider what happened under the previous guy. Trump backed off everywhere Russia got involved. In Syria, the US did not engage with Russian forces. In Europe, he disengaged from NATO. With Iran, he disengaged, while Russia made inroads. And then there’s China.

And Obama stood by when Putin took Crimea from Ukraine, a decision that Wrongo agreed with at the time. That no longer looks correct seven years later.

Are we likely to see preening and strutting by Biden and Putin? Absolutely. Who holds the upper hand in what at this point is a game of poker? Hard to say.

The pressure will be on Biden to respond strongly if Russia makes a concrete move into or beyond the disputed regions held by the “separatists”. Ukraine has asked to join NATO, but there is little interest in the US or Europe to agree to invite them in. The Kremlin bitterly opposes Ukraine joining NATO. That hasn’t stopped Ukraine president Zelensky from saying;

“We are committed to reforming our army and defense sector, but reforms alone will not stop Russia…NATO is the only way to end the war in [the] Donbas…”

Russia’s end game may be like what just happened in Azerbaijan: Russian peacekeepers on the ground controlling the territory. Ukraine could become another localized escalation leading to the deployment of Russian “peacekeepers”. That may be Putin’s short-run goal.

Putin is pushing Biden to think about things other than infrastructure and using reconciliation in the Senate.

How Biden and Europe play the hand will set the stage for much of the next decade in Europe.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 29, 2021

The Daily Escape:

Ranch land near Reno NV – February 2021 photo by Patrick Lanzing

The Conversation has an interesting article by Tony Kevin from Australian National University, that analyzes the Biden administration’s early missteps with both China and Russia. He says that:

“In two dramatic, televised moments, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have changed the dynamics between their countries perhaps irrevocably.”

Kevin quotes Putin saying the terms of working with the US have changed:

“Although they think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural, and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests. And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and on those conditions that we consider beneficial for ourselves. And they will have to reckon with it. They will have to reckon with this, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, insults, they will have to reckon with this.”

Turning to China and the initial meeting disaster, Kevin says that the Chinese feel similarly:

“Putin’s…statement is remarkably similar to the equally firm public statements made by senior Chinese diplomats to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska last week.”

He quotes Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief:

“The US does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The US uses its military force and financial hegemony to carry out long-arm jurisdiction and suppress other countries. It abuses so-called notions of national security to obstruct normal trade exchanges, and to incite some countries to attack China.”

Jiechi said the US had no right to push its own version of democracy when it was dealing with so much discontent and human rights problems at home.

Biden’s campaign pitch was that his leadership would put the adults back in charge of foreign policy. But it’s hard to ignore Biden’s slap at Putin (calling him a killer), followed by the train wreck of the China summit in Alaska. Biden’s team is accomplishing the difficult task of making Trump look… er, not terrible.

Could it be that the world is moving on? That our competitors and friends no longer buy the “America is a force for good” story? After all, we’re showing them the worst of American values, by trying to overturn an election, by curtailing voting rights, and by refusing to do anything about mass shootings or the growing poverty that are endemic in the US.

The Guardian reports that we’ve fallen by 11 points in the latest report by democracy watchdog, Freedom House. We’re now below Argentina and Mongolia, and on a par with  Panama, Romania and Croatia!

Dismounting from our high horse will be difficult for the US, but do we have a choice? The world is suddenly signaling strongly that they’ve had enough of American faux exceptionalism and the belligerence we display when we engage with other nations.

Kevin concludes that we’re in a new kind of Cold War, not based on ideology like the original Cold War, but now it’s a war for international legitimacy. Moreover, Kevin adds:

“The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.”

The distribution of global power is changing. What matters now is the growing self-confidence of these two nations, particularly in comparison to what they see as a clearly weakened US. In essence, Russia and China are sending Biden a message:

“Don’t judge us or try to change us. Those days are over.”

Kevin concludes:

“The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money may be moving to Russia and China.”

Time to wake up America! It’s again becoming a multi-polar world. We can’t know what the outcome of this competition will be. But we seem to be at one of those points in history where things can take a very sharp and irreversible turn in a new direction.

These factors have been brewing for years. We’re witnessing a Russia/China strategic alliance which will force us and other countries to make some very hard choices about which side of the fence they’re on. To help you wake up, listen to the Foo Fighters newest, “Waiting on a War”:

Sample Lyrics:

I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young

Since I was a little boy with a toy gun

Never really wanted to be number one

Just wanted to love everyone

Here’s Dave Grohl’s motivation for writing the tune:

“Last fall, as I was driving my daughter to school, she turned to me and asked, ​‘Daddy, is there going to be a war?’ My heart sank as I realized that she was now living under the same dark cloud that I had felt 40 years ago. Every day waiting for the sky to fall. Is there more to this than that? Is there more to this than just waiting on a war? Because I need more. We all do. This song was written for my daughter, Harper, who deserves a future, just as every child does.”

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Is Russia Paying to Have Our Soldiers Killed?

The Daily Escape:

Sunset at McWay Cove, Big Sur, CA – 2020 photo by maxfoster098. What’s the name of the red flowers?

The NYT reported that Russia’s intelligence agency offered bounties to the Taliban for US troops killed during our peace talks with Afghanistan. The report said US intelligence briefed Trump and his administration, but for months they did nothing about it, while Trump tried to get Putin accepted back into the G7.

Those reports were backed up by the WSJ, Fox, and the WaPo.

The NYT’s Charlie Savage got very specific, including dates, which would seem to indicate that some people in the Intelligence Community (IC) or in the White House have had enough.

Calling them “bounties” raises America’s emotional hackles. It’s a word that’s useful to Trump’s enemies, implying individual incentive pay for an individual death, something that’s really personal. That doesn’t seem likely or practical: How does an individual Taliban soldier prove he’s behind an individual US soldier’s death?

Most likely, any incentive pay would go to the group for coalition casualties confirmed in the aftermath of an attack.

Russia completely denies the story. The White House doesn’t deny that the IC reported it, but it denies that Trump was in the loop.

Press Secretary McEnany’s insistence that Trump didn’t know about it can be viewed as either a damning indictment, or a lie. Either way, it isn’t a good look for a guy running for president. And it appears that this is a serious leak of classified information from within the White House.

Was Trump kept in the dark by his National Security Advisor? Did he refuse to believe the IC reporting? Or did he decide to quietly confront Putin about this episode in the continuing shadow war?

That could be a reasonable response, assuming you think Trump had a game plan for Russia. Wrongo doesn’t think that, and the words of John Bolton and all the others who have exited the administration would say Trump has no plan.

Also, some history: During Charlie Wilson’s War, in the 1980s, we supported and supplied the Afghani Mujahedin with weapons to kill Soviet soldiers while they were in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Since we did it to Russia in the 1980s, it’s difficult for Wrongo to get worked up over this Russian ploy, assuming that it happened. Of course we paid wholesale for Russian casualties, while Putin is apparently paying retail for ours.

If it did happen, it shows that Russia isn’t America’s friend. It also shows that Putin is no longer trying to be Trump’s friend.

We don’t have to go to war with each other over this, but we should realize that our relationship will require sustained improvement across many years to be normalized. OTOH, when the Commander-in-Chief sends his troops into harm’s way, he has an affirmative duty to protect them.

Some think that the Russians fed the story to the US media to discredit Trump. Perhaps we should try to understand whether the Kremlin still wants Trump to be president.

From their POV, America’s instability will surely ramp up to a higher level if he is re-elected. That might be helpful to Putin. But, any thought that Trump will improve our relationship with Russia ended long ago. Russia may be thinking that the US Intelligence Community is the devil they know.

Some history about Afghanistan: In 1979, Brezhnev thought the Russian invasion of Afghanistan would be over in 6 weeks. Ten years later, minus 118 jets, 333 helicopters and a lot of dead Russians, they withdrew as had the British before them. The recipe for ruin in Afghanistan was/is:

  • Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region
  • Double the estimate
  • Repeat as necessary until you lose

Then countries tumble to one of two exit strategies:

  • Withdraw after significant losses, as did the British and Russians
  • Leave an army of occupation as Alexander did, and as we have done

If we are going to get upset at US service members being killed by paid proxies, then we should ask, why are we still there? Why is this worth any more American lives and treasure?

Since we have no strategy, most Americans barely know what we’re doing in Afghanistan. But that won’t stop our chicken hawk politicians from trying to gin up anger on the part of Americans.

Regardless of its truth, this story hits Trump where it hurts. He has to react.

The idea of four more years of this is terrifying.

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Trump Loses Syria, America Wins

The Daily Escape:

Lake of the Clouds, Michigan – October 2019 photo by kawl

The accepted view in DC is that Trump’s decision to green light Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria benefits US adversaries, including Iran, Russia and Syria.

There are collateral effects. The withdrawal of US forces and its behavior with the Kurds after many years of battles against ISIS helps to confirm Russia’s credibility and commitment towards its Middle East allies. By comparison, Trump’s actions paint the US as an untrustworthy partner.

The US foreign policy establishment and the mainstream American media keep making these arguments. American Neocons are openly complaining. They will blame Trump for “losing Syria.”

Are they correct, and does it matter?

When Trump announced over the weekend that all US troops are pulling out of northern Syria, it immediately led to the Kurds (the group we just abandoned) making a deal with Syria. Various outlets are reporting that the Kurds have made an agreement with Syria, and that Russia will be the guarantor.

This means that the Kurds will become part of the Syrian security forces. The Syrian Army has agreed to take control of all ISIS prisoners, families and those on the run.

According to free-lance Syrian analyst Danny Makki ‏ (@Dannymakkisyria) in a Twitter thread, here are the main points of agreement between the Kurds (SDF) and the Syrian government: (brackets by Wrongo)

1/ The abolishment of the SDF…with all the current Kurdish forces and military groups joining the 5th Corps (Assault Legion) under Russian control 3:12 AM – 14 Oct 2019
2/ A solid guarantee of full Kurdish rights in the new Syrian constitution with autonomy which will be agreed upon by Kurdish leadership & Syrian state.
3/ Joint coordinated effort by Syrian/Kurdish forces to remove Turkish presence in northern Syria including Afrin…
4/ Manbij & Kobani were agreed upon for SAA [Syrian Arab Army] to enter quickly, whilst Hasakeh has seen a wide scale deployment of Syrian troops, this will continue in Qamishli and other joint areas
5/ With Syrian forces now on the border area with Turkey it’s clear that this starts a new phase in the 8-year-long war where some sort of endgame is now taking shape – all border areas and administrational centers will be taken over by the Syrian government
6/ Within one month Kurdish leadership with start to take up some official roles within the current Syrian government to ease the transition period of N. #Syria until an new constitution/government is formed in the future

/snip/

12/ The agreement thus far is effectively a military one, based on self-defense and mutual interest with a number of set aims. The governance/land delegation/ISIS prisoners part will follow later
13/ Syrian forces will deployed on the entirety of the border with Turkey, this is the first time in 6 years that the Syrian army will have a serious presence in N. East Syria
14/ Although Manbij is one of the cities that the Syrian army would take according to the agreement, the situation there is still tense and it is unclear exactly who will control it.

Russia has been working hard to reach a comprehensive agreement with Turkey and Syria to halt the military operations including for Manbij, as soon as possible.

Syria is now on the way to regaining control over all of its territory, thanks to Russia and to a lesser extent, to Donald Trump. There’s no other way to put it. It appears that all that was needed was an announcement of the US withdrawal to fast track an end of the war in Syria.

It seems like every party is getting what it needed: Trump gets US forces out of Syria. Turkey feared a well-armed and powerful YPG, which was previously supplied and protected by the US. Now that the US is pulling out, Syria won’t allow any YPG attack against Turkey from northeast Syria.

Russia sees the end to their hot war in Syria, and a huge boost in their credibility and reputation in the Middle East. The Kurds won’t get their semi-autonomous Rojava territory, but they will be alive, living in their ancestral lands, and under Damascus’ governance.

But take it from Wrongo, (who has absolutely no respect for him), Trump did the right thing. Maybe its a Republican thing: Reagan got out of Lebanon. Nixon went to China.

Trump’s seeming willingness to work with Putin will ultimately make Syria a better place. Most Syrian refugees could wind up repatriated to a peaceful country.

Putin could not have orchestrated this without Trump’s willingness to buck the US foreign policy elites, the military, and our politicians.

Trump may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons, or he may not have even been aware of this predictable outcome. But we should chalk it up as a victory for the American people.

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Monday Wake Up Call – July 22, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Glacier NP, Montana – 2019 photo by e_met

Americans don’t like geopolitics. Columns about the world situation have been Wrongo’s least-viewed since the start of The Wrongologist blog in 2010. Today may be time for Americans to wake up, and think about our evolving and dangerous situation with Iran.

You know the basics: The US pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018. We reinstituted sanctions, the most important of which came into effect in November 2018, covering sales of oil and petrochemical products from Iran.

Since then, Iran has found it difficult to sell its oil, since the payments would be cleared through a vehicle called SWIFT, which is the payments backstop of the international trading system. SWIFT provides a network that enables more than 11,000 financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.

No one wants to buy oil, and settle the deal through SWIFT because the US will become aware of the deal, and penalize the bank(s) or companies that worked with Iran. Another payment system is emerging, INSTEX, which will circumvent US sanctions, but it may be too little, too late, given the precipitous impact sanctions have had on Iran’s oil sales.

Things have now heated up. First with the seizure of an Iranian-flagged oil tanker by the UK in Gibraltar two weeks ago. It was ostensibly on its way to deliver oil to Syria, and the US asked the UK to seize the ship. What followed was tit-for-tat: On Friday, Iran seized a UK flag oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz.

The US media is calling Iran seizure an unprovoked “attack” on a British flagged ship. Britain justifies its Gibraltar action as just keeping the sanction regime in place.

Here’s where things become dangerous. The neocons in Washington and in the media are seeking immediate and tough action, portraying Iran as an imminent threat to free trade, and to the West’s oil supply. Trump regrettably, is ignorant of Iran and Middle East history, and may not have the ability to avoid employing military force.

There is a dangerous delusion within the Trump /Bolton/Pompeo National Security team: They believe we are so militarily dominant that Iran will not dare fight us.

That is a strategically dangerous place to land. Our best option is to resolve the current tanker seizures with diplomacy. The UK and Iran could agree to resolve the situation and release the respective ships. All other options involve shooting and possibly, a military escalation involving others, including China and Russia.

If key Iranian infrastructure is targeted, nobody really thinks Iran will sit passively, and let us attack critical targets.

Iran has a robust, if not totally modern, military that could engage in counter strikes on US/UK targets in the Middle East. That would certainly involve our naval assets in the Persian Gulf. Now, suppose US aircraft are downed inside Iran (Iran has Russia’s S-300 antiaircraft system, but not the newer S-400). Trump would come under intense pressure to escalate. Any US pilots that survived being shot down, would give Tehran a big bargaining chip. Would Trump bargain, or would he continue to fight?

Iran would be damaged, but it would survive. The religious leadership’s hold on Iran would be strengthened. Trump’s political fortunes could take a hit from that portion of his base that is against foreign entanglements, as well as the other 60% of America.

The DC neocons are certain we can bomb Iran into submission. That is a fantasy, just as it was in Vietnam and Iraq.

All indications are that the Iranians aren’t going to cave. They’ve proven for decades to be very pragmatic. They may choose to talk. If Trump is smart, he’ll take a sit-down with the Iranians before things get out of control, and before the DC neocons and their Israeli friends push things beyond a point of no return.

He might get a deal that looks suspiciously like the Obama Nuclear Deal. Then, he can come back and claim he got the best deal ever, a deal only The Donald could get!

If he sticks to his “I have to win, I have to be seen as beating the other guy” as his game plan, we are in for a long, dangerous summer.

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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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Dems Should Talk Foreign Policy

The Daily Escape:

Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Italy – 2018 photo by Marco Zanta. The glass-enclosed extension is a restaurant.

Every Democratic candidate for the 2020 nomination is discussing domestic policy: Medicare for All, Free College, and all of the other jump shifts in policy, but what about global politics?

Biden isn’t unique among candidates in saying the 2020 election is about a return to the way things were before Trump, the Economist reports:

“’This too shall pass,’ Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. ‘We will be back.’ The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball.”

It is problematic to rely on the ideas of a Clinton operative, but the Economist quotes Jake Sullivan, a 2016 Hillary advisor who says that the thrust of the Democrats’ foreign policy approach is simple: reverse much of what Trump has done. Sullivan talks of a “back to basics” approach: Value alliances, stress diplomacy:

“Compared with domestic policy….there is less focus on new ideas.”

All of the Democratic candidates would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. They would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, possibly with new pre-conditions for lifting sanctions. All would reassure NATO allies of their full commitment to the alliance.

Most Dems agree with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China. However, they would ask America’s allies to work with us on the outcomes.

Biden has a long foreign policy track record. He proposed cutting Iraq into three states for the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. He wanted to arm the Ukrainians against Russia. He opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya.

The other candidates have said less, and have no distinctive foreign policy positions.

It would be great if we actually talked about foreign policy in the 2020 primaries. Let’s take a step back and remember 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s other nuclear-armed superpower, we became the sole superpower. Until then, our strategy had been to contain the Soviet Union, but afterwards, lacking a global competitor, neither Party put forth a coherent global strategy.

We blundered into the Middle East with the Gulf War in 1991. After 9/11, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. We then hatched the war on terror, and subsequently expanded our globalized military across the world. And when the ledger finally closes on our expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost will approach $4 trillion.

Had we spent that amount on domestic priorities, we could have shored up Social Security and Medicare for a generation. We could have paid for the repair of our crumbling infrastructure. Instead, we’ve emerged from our Middle East blunder with two global competitors, China and Russia, along with a huge fiscal deficit. Neither had to happen.

America has failed to see the connections between our global strategy and domestic strategy. Providing incentives to our multinational corporations that enabled them to make goods abroad has marooned large swaths of our domestic workers.

A reasonable question to discuss is whether we can continue supporting globalization while building good jobs in the heartland of America.

And there should be a real debate regarding Trump’s foreign policy. He has sided more closely with Israel. He’s walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. He’s threatened Venezuela with possible “military options” that are being seriously discussed at the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, the Israelis told Bolton and Pompeo that the Iranians are preparing to attack the approximately 5000 US military personnel in Iraq. That may or may not be true, but it led to Pompeo visiting Baghdad.

Do American voters want another war in the Middle East? Trump is daring Iran to fully withdraw from the Nuclear Deal. Who will become the fall guy if there is an Iranian closing of the Straits of Hormuz? Trump, or Iran?

Trade talks with China seem stalled. North Korea’s recent missile tests press Trump’s bet on a deal with NK. Surely Kim is carefully watching Trump’s moves in the Middle East.

Then there is Russia. The Dems overreached with Russiagate, but the Russians are working with Syria to eliminate one of the last places in Syria (Idlib) where terrorists still hold sway. Neither Israel nor Bolton seem to want a stable Syria. Will they try to force Trump to obstruct this important operation?

Debate by Democrats may focus on military spending, with some wanting to cut it, and the mainstreamers being more cautious. A new policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, should be discussed.

Regardless, Trump will surely attack Dems as “soft” on national defense.

But Democrats should thoughtfully challenge the Right-wing assumption that America must have a military-first strategy, rather than a diplomacy-first strategy.

We’re stretched thin trying to have a military presence everywhere in the world. It’s worth a real debate.

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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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Saturday Soother – February 9, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Coyote in Litchfield County CT – February 2019 photo by Sharon Shea

For more than 30 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) has been one of the cornerstones of the international security system. But, on February 1st, Trump announced that the US would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty. Shortly thereafter, Russia’s President Putin announced that Russia will also officially suspend its treaty obligations.

Trump swings another wrecking ball! Defense One reported that Trump said that the US:

“Will move forward with developing…its own military response options and will work with NATO members and other allies to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”

This means that Trump will start the development, production and deployment of formerly INF-banned weapons.

Until the treaty took effect in 1988, the US had hundreds of nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles, or GCLMs all over Europe. Today, all cruise missiles are either air or sea-launched. New GCLMs are likely to be returning soon. Contenders include converting the sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, and the air-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM.

Walking away from the INF Treaty opens the door to both sides building land-based nuclear capable missiles with a range beyond 300 miles.

There are two things to think about: Cost, and Strategic necessity. Kingston Reif, a policy director at the Arms Control Association, said the cost of the new missile systems would be much higher than the $6 billion or so it cost in the 1980s.

On the subject of necessity, he says:

“The United States can already…threaten the same Russian targets that new ground-launched missiles prohibited by INF Treaty would….In addition, no European nation has agreed to host such a missile, which could take years to develop. And even if one in Eastern Europe did, such a deployment would be a significant source of division within the alliance—one Russia would be eager to try and exploit—be hugely provocative, and put missiles in a place where they would be especially vulnerable to Russian preemption…”

The downside to the US withdrawing from the treaty is that we currently have no strategy to prevent Russia from building and fielding even more and new intermediate-range missiles.

Since Russia already announced it will now build these new missiles, our NATO allies in Europe have decisions to make. They will have to pursue options to defend themselves, to mitigate the damage done by the collapse of the treaty.

We’re entering a new Cold War with Russia.

Some believe that the INF treaty is obsolete, because many nations are developing effective missiles and launching capabilities that will be outside the limitations of the INF. Since we all will continue to develop these technologies, maybe the best we can hope for is to negotiate new treaties that address this increasing lethality down the road.

OTOH, Trump and his neocons are doing everything they can to encircle Russia with missile bases while claiming the moral high ground. We should expect them to utilize Poland, the Baltic states, and possibly Ukraine (if they can get away with it), as forward missile bases.

They figure that since geography favors them, why negotiate if you can win? Russia already called our bluff. For this strategy to work, the US must threaten Russia from Europe while simultaneously putting Europe under our new missile thumb. It might work, but there are many moving parts.

Republicans of course supported Trump, cheering about the breakup of a treaty signed by Ronald Reagan. When Wrongo grew up, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real. We drilled for it in school. He then ran a nuclear missile unit in Europe at the height of the Cold War. These were formative experiences that implied very dangerous consequences.

And think about our domestic politics: If someone were to run in 2020 as anti-Cold War II, they would have to say we need to work with the Russians to find a peaceful way out of this mess. Trump will then run to their right, saying Russia must be stopped.

Scared yet? A presidency based on disruption will do that to you.

Time for your Saturday Soother. Try to unplug from all the data that are streaming into your life for a few minutes. Start by brewing up a strong cuppa Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($45.95/half pound) from the Big Island of Hawaii. You can see their plantation here.

Now settle back and listen to Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” performed as a guitar instrumental by Gabriella Quevedo:

For those who may have forgotten the lyric, it includes this:

The winner takes all

It’s the thrill of one more kill

The last one to fall

Will never sacrifice their will

Think there will be winners in the new Cold War?

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

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