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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump’s Cabinet Moves Signal Danger Ahead

The Daily Escape:

Impalas sharing a drink – Via

A few additional thoughts about the falling dominoes in Trump’s cabinet that were triggered by Tillerson’s firing. There are rumors that Gary Cohn will be replaced by Larry Kudlow, and that National Security Advisor HR McMaster may be replaced by John Bolton.

So, think about the new line-up. Kudlow is economic czar. CIA Director Pompeo becomes Secretary of State. Gina Haspel, who oversaw the secret CIA torture prisons in Thailand is promoted to Director of the CIA, and John Bolton turns up as National Security Advisor. These people, along with Nikki Haley at the UN, who this week threatened another cruise missile attack inside Syria, are among the worst possible choices for their respective jobs.

Unless we exhume and reinstate Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Wrongo had direct experience with Kudlow during the Reagan administration, when Kudlow was associate director for economics and planning in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under David Stockman. Wrongo was at the big NY bank, and was lobbying for approval of a new line of business that was a stretch under the Glass-Steagall regulations at the time. In our one meeting, Kudlow was a pompous asshat. He lectured us about “trickle-down” economics, and how the country was in the midst of a conservative cultural revolution led by St. Ronnie.

We couldn’t get away from him fast enough. BTW, we did get the exception to the regulations, without any help from Kudlow. Perhaps it is useful to remember that Kudlow has no training in economics, although he plays one on TV. Also, he was fired from Bear Stearns for his $100,000 per month cocaine habit. And that’s in 1994 dollars. Real economist Brad DeLong says appointing Kudlow is like appointing William Shatner commander of the 7th Fleet.

If all of these moves come to pass, Trump will be surrounded only by true believers. Any Generals that are left, except for Mattis at Defense, may act as if they are true believers, as well.

Think of these moves as the first step in a new neo-con takeover of our national security strategy:

  • There will be no normalization of our relations with Russia
  • There will be a confrontation with Iran
  • The effort to destabilize Syria will continue
  • China will be confronted, first on trade, and second, on their growing regional aspirations
  • Nothing will come from any discussions with North Korea

Trump’s neocon cabinet now will have the means both to support Israel’s ambitions in the Middle East, as well as their own desire for Washington’s military hegemony in the world. They will use the “Russian threat” as a justification of more defense spending and even more militaristic actions abroad.

This is an extremely dangerous agenda. Russia’s new weapons as announced by Putin last week seem to suggest that they may have some military superiority over the US. Certainly, that may embolden China and Iran to move closer to the Russians.

If the administration persists in making charges and threats against Russia, Iran, and China, those nations must eventually react. They may become allied militarily, anticipating a possible war against the current US regime.

If, as Haley has threatened, the US were to again strike Syria, Russia has to choose whether to let it pass (as it did when Trump fired 50 cruise missiles previously), or to respond. If the US misjudges its attack, and Russia responds with actions that kill US military personnel, then the US regime faces the same choice, to let it pass, or not.

Any time we (or the Russians) are forced to consider retaliation, there is a clear cost to not retaliating, as well as a strong inclination to not just turn the other cheek.

Trump’s new cabinet line-up can lead us into a profoundly dangerous situation.

And it will be driven by a tiny minority: A neocon cabinet. Plus the Israelis who ardently desire the US to take on Iran. And elements of the US military/security complex, who feel we must be the biggest, baddest asshats in town.

We are sitting in the middle of the most reckless behavior in modern history.

Where are the voices against this?

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Trump’s Dangerous Game: Regime Change in Iran

The Daily Escape:

Engelberg, Switzerland – photo by miracolei

Politico reports that the Trump administration is thinking about regime change in Iran:

As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key allies of President Donald Trump are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just that in testimony to Congress about the State Department’s budget:

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on [its regional] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.

As a member of Congress, Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo last year called for congressional action to:

Change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime…

All of this may have gone unnoticed in Washington, but it was heard in Iran. Iran’s ambassador to the UN filed a formal protest over Tillerson’s statement, saying it revealed:

A brazen interventionist plan that runs counter to every norm and principle of international law…

Critics of regime change say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew a democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hard-liners. That’s why President Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the UN, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

Then there is the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration worked with the international community to put in place a program that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It’s important that this program work not just because Iran is an adversary, but it’s also key for preventing other countries in the region from developing their own nuclear weapons.

We can debate how rational the Iranian regime is, and whether or not their religious beliefs might make them less prone to act responsibly with a nuclear arsenal. The safer course is not to get distracted by regime change arguments, but instead, hold to a policy based on anti-proliferation and avoidance of a regional nuclear arms race.

But the Iran hawks want to change the status quo, because they say America can’t be safe this way.

They are blind to the fact that Iran is changing. It has now twice elected a (relatively) progressive president. Their young people are progressive. Obama understood that, and that it was likely that within the ten year life of the Nuclear Deal, progressivism and the desire of Iran’s young people to be part of the outside secular would prevail.

We can agree that Iran’s government poses some risk to the US, but we should also be clear that this has been true for decades, and it has been manageable. We have suffered more from the terroristic Sunni-based ideology exported by Saudi Arabia. Nothing comparable can be said about Iran. In fact, Iran’s primary effort at destabilization has been their support for Palestine vs. Israel.

So, our regional “allies” are working to make us less safe than is Iran.

We can’t disentangle ourselves from the region, but we should refuse to take actions that are sure to inflame things. From Booman:

It would seem our only compelling national interests in the middle east are nonproliferation, and humanitarian conflict-reduction both for its own sake and to reduce the attendant population flows and contagious violence.

Wikipedia lists 19 US efforts at regime change just since WWII. If there is one thing we should all know by now, it is that whatever takes the place of a toppled regime is frequently no better and often even worse than the government that has been overthrown. Let’s learn from history!

An attempt to overthrow the government in Iran is sure to fail, and the political fallout could be catastrophic. Iran’s current theocratic government exists because we overthrew their last democratically elected government, replacing it with the Shah. That sowed the seeds for the Iranian Revolution.

Calling for regime change in Iran is a fundamental error in strategy that endangers us, inflames the region, and will be catastrophic if we act on it.

Here’s a tune for Tuesday, Sam Cooke 1960’s hit “What a Wonderful World”, with a line that expresses Republican thought about Iran: “Don’t know much about history”:

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

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America’s “Fill in the Blanks” Middle East Policy

(There will be no further posting until Monday 10/26, since Wrongo and Ms. Oh So Right are attending a weekend family reunion)

We have been talking about our failed strategy in the Middle East for several days. Here is a great observation by Tom Englehardt that summarizes our all-too-true ME reality:

Sometimes I imagine the last 14 years of American war policy in the Greater Middle East as a set of dismal Mad Libs. An example might be: The United States has spent [your choice of multiple billions of dollars] building up [fill in name of Greater Middle Eastern country]’s army and equipping it with [range of weaponry of your choosing]. That army was recently routed by the [rebel or terrorist group of your choice] and fled, abandoning [list U.S. weaponry and equipment]. Washington has just sent in more [choose from: trainers/weaponry/equipment/all of the above] and [continue the sentence ad infinitum]. Or here’s another: After [number, and make it large] years and a [choose one or more: war, air war, drone assassination campaign, intervention, counterinsurgency program, counterterror effort, occupation] in [Greater Middle Eastern country of your choice] that seems to be [choose from: failing, unraveling, going nowhere, achieving nothing], the [fill in office of top U.S. official of your choice] has just stated that a U.S. withdrawal would be [choose from: counterproductive, self-defeating, inconceivable, politically unpalatable, dangerous to the homeland, mad] because [leave this blank, since no one knows].

Englehardt’s blog, TomDispatch, has an important article by Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department, who spent a year in Iraq. The article is entitled: What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came? − What Could Possibly Go Wrong (October 2015 Edition)

You should read it all, but here are some extensive quotes:

In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

More:

There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

And more:

What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

And finally: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

What are we doing in the ME?

Why are we doing it?

What end state do we want?

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Why Are Neocons So Afraid of Russia?

Russia moved rapidly to prop up the Assad regime. They bombed the so-called “moderates” who were waging a war of attrition against Assad’s army. With air support from Russia, Assad’s army is trying to retake territory seized this year in Idlib and Hama Provinces by insurgent groups that include the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and American-backed units.

So, we countered, saying that Russia was killing our guys on the ground:

‘Our guys are fighting for their lives’ said the official, estimating up to 150 CIA-trained moderate rebels have been killed by the Russians.

“Our guys”? The unnamed DC official is referring to the CIA mercenaries who are fighting under al-Qaeda’s command. If the CIA is so concerned about the fate of its “assets”, then all it has to do is to order these moderate head chopper clowns to withdraw back to Turkey or Jordan.

The predominantly neo-con US Foreign Policy elite sees the reemergence of Russia along with the emergence of China, to the status of superpowers as a zero sum game. Therefore, specific, event-limited multi-polar cooperation with these global competitors is considered impossible.

What irritates Washington more than anything else is a display of Russian military prowess that we thought was relegated to 20th century history. Moreover, Russia showed up and started shooting with impressive speed and efficiency. Note that Russia didn’t require that the local military undergo multiple years (and $ Billions) of military training in order to get busy. In addition, they created an active coalition with Iranian and Hezbollah forces who coordinate action on the ground in real time with the Russians and the Syrians.

Russia has given Syria an air force, which we couldn’t do effectively in Afghanistan or Iraq, because their armies, despite all of our training, are weaker than Syria’s.

All of this has enraged the neo-cons and the media. They cannot believe Russia’s temerity, or that Mr. Obama has allowed the US to look weak and feckless. But weakness should be understood, since the US strategy has no clear goals, and is increasingly incoherent. We have a hodgepodge of “allies”, all with competing and often diametrically opposed agendas.

It is not so much a question of which US ally is the most dependable, but which is the least duplicitous.

While we mount a PR campaign to denigrate Russia’s motives, we are simultaneously taking steps to impede their efforts in Syria by arming Assad’s enemies, setting up a likely proxy war with possibly, more than one adversary.

Why are we doing this? We can never underestimate the extent to which the neo-con foreign policy elite believes in American Exceptionalism. It sustains a collective and individual need to appear to win today without giving a thought to tomorrow.

So what do we really have to fear from Russia?

• Russia has a GDP smaller than Italy’s. In fact, its GDP is about a tenth that of the US.
• Its population is currently about 143 million, but this is projected to fall to less than 130 million by 2050. That would be less than the 2050 population of any two of: France, Germany, or the UK.

Basically, Russia has a small window through which it can conduct force projection in the ME. Unless things change drastically, that window will effectively close sometime within the next 10-20 years. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid.

But, they seem committed to using smarts, deep understanding of the local situation, and detailed planning to achieve their goals, while the US uses tactical thinking and blunt force.

And the US needs to remember that it was a Sunni force that became al-Qaeda. It was al-Qaeda that attacked the US. The simple fact is that the direct descendants of Al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq are Al Nusra (AN) and ISIS. These are the people we are backing inside Syria, even as we attempt to fight ISIS in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

Russia is forming an alliance of Shia nations, including Iraq. They will ultimately tackle ISIS.

The US tries to square the circle, attacking the Sunni ISIS, while considering most Shia nations as enemies.

Sunnis comprise the largest anti-Assad forces in Syria. Therefore, if the Assad government fell, it would fall to Sunni Jihadists. We should understand if that is what our government is wishing for: Russia beaten. The Syrian government shattered. The flags of ISIS, AQ and AN flying over Damascus.

That is a nihilist viewpoint, and a prescription for endless war in the ME. The neo-cons may want that, but the rest of us, not so much.

What has happened to America’s foreign policy is a form of dementia brought about by an almost complete disregard for truth, honor, decency or honesty by the neo-con elite and many others in the political class.

Our wrongheaded Middle East policy is but a symptom, the neo-con dementia extends throughout our society and our economy.

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Why the Hysteria about Russia and Syria?

Tom Friedman gets it right:

Today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.

The hysterical neocon viewpoint was amply represented by who else but John McCain, who told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he could confirm that Russia’s initial strikes were:

Against our Free Syrian Army (FSA) or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there.

There was no similar howl of angst when NATO member Turkey started bombing the West’s friends the Kurds, instead of ISIS. So, no hypocrisy here.

And McCain calls them our FSA? We have no FSA, although the CIA trains a few groups. The prevailing neocon fantasy, that we could have prevented the Syrian mess by training and arming a bigger, badder “Free Syrian Army”, continues to pollute the Syrian issue, preventing honest debate. We trained and armed a million soldiers in Vietnam, 300,000+ in Iraq, and tens of thousands in Afghanistan. How did those efforts work out?

And our training of Syrian “moderate rebels” has been a total bust.

But, the Russians’ first foray didn’t hit ISIS, they hit other groups. Word is they hit targets north and west of Homs (al-Rastan, Talbisah and al-Zafaraaneh). This is an area controlled not by ISIS, but other rebel groups. And right on cue, we heard that they hit the Syrian “moderates”.

Imagine, the US couldn’t find “moderate” rebels for 3 years, but the Russians found them in 24 hours!

McCain characterized the Russian air strikes as:

An incredible flouting of any kind of cooperation or effort to conceal what their first — Putin’s priority is. And that is of course to prop up Bashar al-Assad.

It’s time for the US to move on. We need to accept the reality that Assad won’t be dealt with until the Islamist threat in Syria and Iraq is contained. It’s also time to let the Russians have a shot at containing the Islamist threat. Whatever Russia’s entry into Syria does for the confrontation with ISIS, it has clarified our thinking. Our strategy says we can’t work with Assad and Iran to attack ISIS. Putin’s strategy says work with Assad and Iran to attack Assad’s enemies and ISIS simultaneously:

• Putin’s first priority will be to secure the Russian base at Tartus and its air base at Latakia. That is what he has done with his initial strikes, as some insurgents have already tried to hit the Russian air base with rockets.
• After securing western and central Syria, Russia will work to take out ISIS, starting with eliminating a few ISIS groups that threaten Russian territory.

So, what should we be doing? Col. Pat Lang has a few ideas:

1. Obama should act as if Russia and Iran are more than just rivals and adversaries. This will take courage and leadership on his part to explain to the American people.
2. Obama must fully coordinate operations, intelligence analysis sharing and logistics with Russian and Iran.
3. We should forget about positive contributions to the ISIS fight from Turkey. Turkey is a major part of the problem.
4. We should ignore Saudi Arabia’s wishes with regard to Syria, since they support the jihadis.

Friedman describes the big advantage to letting Putin take the lead in Syria:

Let’s say the US did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing ISIS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadist, has Putin’s picture in a bull’s eye on his cellphone?

No one is arguing that Bashar al-Assad is a benevolent leader, but when US media and analysts at some think tanks start describing al-Qaeda as “moderate”, we need to rethink our strategy. Again.

You can’t go into Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS and simultaneously try to depose Assad, only to gripe when Russia also goes into Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS and props up Assad.

That sword cuts both ways.

The bottom line is that the US, and its ME and European allies are going to have to admit that getting rid of Assad is a secondary priority to our absolute requirement to contain and ultimately eliminate the threat from ISIS. They also must admit that none of the groups that the CIA and our ME allies have trained and supported represent a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

The sooner we do, the sooner Syria will cease to be the jihadi chessboard du jour, on which ISIS and a civil war in Syria have left hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead.

We need to turn a corner. Our current thinking has failed.

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Sen. Cotton Must Bone Up on Strategy

“Empires are lost when inadequate men become leaders and wage war for base reasons or no reason at all.”Sun Tzu

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) Cotton accused President Obama of a “false choice” between his framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program and war. He then downplayed what would happen if we just bombed Iran: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days of air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior. For interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.

Who cares what the generals, intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts think after war gaming various scenarios for a war with Iran? Hint: it’s not a pretty outcome.

But, for Sen. Cotton, the only opinion that really matters is Sen. Cotton’s, America’s new military strategist. Sen. Cotton was elected in part because of his prior military service, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He left the military in 2013. Sadly, not everyone who was in combat while serving is a strategic thinker. Given his military experience, he should know that geopolitics is not a Hollywood movie.

This guy has a romantic vision of how a “quick war” would proceed. He says it would be a few days of air and naval bombing against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He apparently thinks that Iran would not move against American shipping in the Gulf, against Israel, or even attempt to take out our military in the ME. And our allies? Who would support us, except Israel and Saudi Arabia? And once the party is over, and Iran dusts off and picks up the pieces, they would surely build nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t we then have to bomb them again?

Wouldn’t that make the US a pariah state?

This reminds us that Republicans, in their eagerness for war, often diminish the costs to America of pursuing the military option. Yep, only a four day war, and then we declare victory! Or, longer, and messier, and then what? Consider this:

• “We will be greeted as liberators”
• “Oil revenues will pay for it”
• “There is no insurgency”
• “The insurgency is in its last throes”

It was 12 years ago that pundits and politicians were touting how fast and cheaply we could turn Iraq into a model democracy. Well, the results are in, but they apparently haven’t registered for Sen. Cotton, who needs to come up with some new and better neo-con talking points.

The neo-cons, the hawks and their spokespersons, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have rarely met an international issue that doesn’t require more American military muscle, and this includes Iran. Perhaps Sen. Cotton is auditioning to replace the decaying Sen. McCain or Sen. Graham in the permanent warmongering Senator chair on the Sunday talkies? He is much younger (38) and could conceivably remain on the national political stage for the next 40 years. Would Sunday Show status give him the credibility to run for POTUS like McCain did, and Graham is attempting to do now?

A strategy tip for Sen. Cotton: “Negotiating from a position of strength” doesn’t mean, “We should negotiate only after we have our boots on their necks”, so if they refuse to accept our terms, we crush them, claiming that they wouldn’t negotiate. He thinks that anything that prevents us from exercising the “boot on the neck” option means we’re in a position of weakness. That’s awful on a lot of levels.

How can a smart guy, a Harvard grad, a lawyer, someone with significant military service, get it so wrong when it comes to geopolitics and military strategy? He should know the difference between Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, we had already decimated their military, destroyed their air defense system and made their airspace into a no-fly zone before our 2003 attack. Iran, which despite crippling economic sanctions, still has its air defense systems, its anti-ship missiles, (which, some war games showed can cripple our fleet in the Persian Gulf) and its military is intact.

Iraq was fractured by sectarian division. It has about 31 million people and is 60% the size of Texas.

Iran is not Arab, it is Muslim, and unified. It has 80 million people and is twice the size of Texas.

Sen. Cotton needs to bone up on military strategy and the Middle East.

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