Monday, May 20, 2019

Secession in Westeros: It Ain't Over

Folks have been picking on the last episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here's my take on the secessionist element below the break.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Game of Thrones: Pool of Life, Way More Life Edition

So, that was a far happier ending than I would have expected, which means, yes, a three way tie.  Explanations and final rulings below:

Pardoning War Criminals is Criminal

Trump has decided to pardon not just one war criminal but perhaps many.  This is awful for many, many reasons.  I have written elsewhere (forthcoming?) about the impact on allies--not good.  Here, I just want to focus on the basics.  That barbarity happens in war, but it is not something you want to encourage.

War does indeed inflame the passions, giving rise to opportunities and pressures to do things that are truly horrible.  It might seem strange to say that it is ok to kill but not that way or not right now or not this person, but we have long had laws of war that defined many behaviors as criminal.  Aside from the morality of this stuff, these laws are also important for operating armed forces.  To have the many soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators do what is expected, they must face the possibility of being punished for behaving in undesirable ways.  That is what is meant by order and discipline being threatened by Trump's pardons--that American troops will not face consequences for disobeying lawful orders, at least in the judicial system, and this will create a permissive environment for those in the armed forces to do bad things.

Yes, some do bad things already--some American troops shot prisoners of war in cold blood even in the Good War while others raped their away across Europe, that massacres happened in Vietnam, and elsewhere.  And, yes, many American servicewomen and men will be restrained by their own moral code and by the disapproval of their peers.  BUT the American president is saying that it is ok to engage in war crimes.  Just like his use of racism and xenophobia in his speeches make it easier for those to come out and be racist and hateful in public and engage in violence against those targeted by the President, Trump's pardoning of war criminals will encourage some troops to engage in horrible acts. 

We should be trying to reduce, not increase, the likelihood that US troops will engage in awful behavior.  Trump, well, that's not what he does.  He makes it possible for people to do bad things.  His cabinet has been given the green light to engage in corruption.  His immigration officials, from John Kelly to Kirstjen Nielsen to whoever's next, have been given the greenlight to abuse immigrants.  Now, the US armed forces are being given the green light to engage in war crimes.

What will the senior military leadership do now?  Will they condone this massive shift in what is expected from their troops?  Will they worry about discipline?  Will they speak out against this?

Yes, this deepens the crisis we have in civilian-military relations in several ways:
  1. The US military leadership may have to speak out against the President on this--which is not good.
  2. The US military leadership may not speak out on this, in which case they will be seen by many civilians as being complicit.  Not good.
  3. It may cause many within the US military who care a great deal about obeying the laws of war to have contempt for their president. Not good.  
  4. Those thinking of joining the military might think twice because they may not want to be in a position where they are ordered to commit war crimes, which is now easier to imagine.  Not good.
Once again, Trump does unnecessary damage to American institutions and interests.  Remember that one reason why the US military supports the laws of war is so that their troops are not abused when taken prisoner.  Yes, some have faced such abuses anyway, but reciprocity is a thing.  Eroding these important restrictions on the conduct of war is not in US interests.  It may play well on Fox News, but it will not play well within much of the US military or the armed forces of those we fight alongside.

Trump swore an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the US.  Abusing the pardon power would seem to be a violation of this and would be, yes, an impeachable offense, would it not?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Ira-2: Electric Boogaloo

Oy, so the war drums are beating with Iran the target this time.  How will this be different?
Here's a clue:

While not all allies jumped aboard the Iraq war bandwagon, Spain showed up last time and then had caveats and left early.  But this points to a key reality when it comes to allies.  They fear two things most--being abandoned and being dragged into a war they don't want to fight.  Japan gets to experience both, but the Spanish are focused on one.  While much of the 2003 support was fairly token--the Bush Administration wanted a long list of countries for their coalition of the willing with few doing real fighting, real burden-bearing.  Spain was one of the few countries that sent enough to attempt to deal with an entire sector.

Anyhow, I expect very, very few countries to join a Trump war in Iran for a few key reasons:
  • As problematic as the Iraq war was in terms of legitimacy, folks could rest on a few key things--UN resolutions, past aggression, past genocide, etc.  Iran has done bad things, but they agreed to a nuclear  arms deal that the US, not Iran, is breaking from.  So, who's going to tell their publics that they need to sacrifice blood and treasure for this war?
  • As unpopular as Bush was in 2003, US relations with most potential partners were not bad except for the war.  This time, US relations with everyone except Israel and Saudi Arabia are awful.  Trade wars, breaking the Iran deal, etc.  Even relations with the UK are not great.  It is hard to see how May could get a vote through parliament.  Trump is toxic.  And that matters for when leaders try to get votes through their legislatures.  
  • As incompetent as Rumseld and his folks were, they did not have that reputation until after they started to screw up the post-war phase.  Everyone knows that this administration can't do anything complicated.  Plus they are pardoning war criminals.  Which makes it even less attractive.
  • Oh, and there's the whole Iran thing.  Iran is a much, much tougher opponent than Iraq.  More territory, more people, a regime that has more legitimacy, one that has not been broken by decades of sanctions and lost wars.  So, anyone thinking about this war needs to get clear that it will not be a walk in the park.  
I don't know if the Trump administration is dumb enough to go to war with Iran. I am pretty sure that few other countries will be dumb enough to join them this time.  Just because Trump and Bolton don't possess learning curves does not mean others haven't learned from the past.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Threat Scorecard--Can't Tell Your Threats Without a Program

The desperate effort to make Iran the bogeyman has got me thinking.

What are the threats facing the US?  What are the most worrisome, the ones most likely to do both significant and lasting damage?  Which ones are, dare I say it, existential?  Focusing on international threats (which lets me dodge naming Trump an existential threat to the US and mostly let's me dodge the related threat of white supremacy), here's the list as I see it from my hotel room in Berlin before I give a talk this afternoon on my civ-mil project:
1.  Climate change.  Yeah, I named a dynamic, not a country, as climate change is going to make a big dent on the US in ways that we are only now starting to appreciate.

2.  Russia.  Close call, but a declining and desperate Russia that is willing to subvert US elections (and British and French and etc) is a greater threat than China.  China's damage is potential, Russia's harm is ongoing.  That Russia's future is kind of bleak does not make Russia less threatening--the prospect of loss is far more likely to lead to risk acceptance, gambling, and bad stuff.  Just as Dany.  Ok, ask Daniel and Amos

3.  China has more power, other than numbers of nukes, than Russia, and straddles more important territory--South China Sea.  It has been taking the gloves off of its rise, as seen by its reaction to the Huawei executive being arrested in Canada for extradition to the US.  China has been playing the long game while Russia has been gambling every day.  China is surely going to be more successful and pose risks to the US down the road.  Right now, it is just a trade war and some island disputes.  It will be more than that although I am not so concerned about China in the Arctic.  There are much more immediate problems (Taiwan, Koreas, South China Sea).

4.  Speaking of the Koreas, North Korea is a significant threat.  Unlike Iran, North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles and is a personalist dictatorship--which means few constraints on the leader.   The frustrating thing about Iran is that Trump seems determined into making Iran like North Korea by dumping the deal.  Of course, North Korea was scarier last year because Trump was amping things up.

5.  ISIS/Al Qaeda/etc.  These organizations can inspire and sometimes organize terrorist attacks.  Uncontested, ISIS did a great deal of damage.

6.  Saudi Arabia.  Yeah, more than Iran.  Why?  Because the Saudis have more influence and allies.  Most folks in the Mideast are worried about Iran and are not its friends, so Iran has to sink resources into Syria.  The Saudis can continue to promote extremism (how many 9/11 attackers were from Iran?  from Saudi Arabia?).  The Saudis have and want to continue to suck the US into wars it should not be fighting.  Yeah, Iran supports terrorism, but so does Saudi Arabia.  I would say that the one way in which Iran is a greater threat is its nuclear weapons program, but the Trump folks seem determined to have the Saudis catch up.

7.  Iran.  Twas a manageable threat with the deal in place.  Yes, Iran supports terrorism, Iran supports Assad, Iran is a pain in the ass.  But not an existential threat to the US.  If the Israelis think Iran is an existential threat, well, that is why they have nuclear weapons.  No country has attacked Israel since 1973--I don't count Hamas or Hezbollah as countries, despite their efforts to become countries.  Note the Israeli Foreign Ministry does list the 1990-91 war as well

8.  Syria.  Mostly by creating waves of refugees that undermine our allies.

What other countries threaten the US?  I am sure some folks would like to list Venezuela, but that is stretching the concept of threat.  What harm can Venezuela do to the US?  Exactly.  Cuba? Same thing.  I am sure other places/movements can be mentioned, but do any outrank any of these?  Let me know if you think I am wrong.  I woke up early here in Berlin so I could watch Game of Thrones unspoiled, so I may not be remembering all of the threats.

To be clear, the US is still the most powerful country on the planet, it is far more resilient than its politicians think (hey, we shake off our kids getting killed by spree shooters all the time), it is still far away from adversaries and most crisis zones.  Immigration is not a threat but an opportunity.  Mostly, the greatest threats to the US are Americans--Trump and his coterie, white supremacists, etc.  In a recent episode of Game of Thrones, after defeating the Night King, Tyrion said something to the effect that now we have to deal with us.  That we are the threat to ourselves, and that would be true even if we didn't take into account climate change.  Yes, the US's position of primacy is ending, but that does not mean the US is really threatened.  It just can't impose its will alone as much as it could for about 20 years.

Game of Thrones Pool of Life: Gratuitious Death Edition

Again, not that much damage to our player's characters despite the blood spilled everywhere.  Well, not so much spilled as flung. Spoilers beyond the break.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Berlin Weekend Tourism: Old Stuff, Water Stuff, Scary Stuff

No interviews on weekends, of course, so I had much time to tour Berlin.  Given that this is my third visit here, I had to figure out stuff I had not done before.  The answers: Pergamon Museum, Spree boat ride, Dungeon and walking in between.

Eastside Gallery redux

If there is one must-see when visiting Berlin, it is the Eastside Gallery.  Some authority (Berlin municipal?) decides who gets to put art on the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall on, well, the east side.  The art varies in style and quality and intent, but it is moving and puts much into context.  So, for those who can't get to Berlin, here are some of the wall segments:

Friday, May 10, 2019

Jumping the Dragon

People have had various problems with Game of Thrones since the start.  This season has been particularly controversial because of the various decisions made by the writers.  First, folks were upset that the first two episodes were too slow, too much scene setting.  Then, folks were upset because not enough people died in the Battle of Winterfell.  I was not so fussed... but now I am.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Too Damned Early

I have not written much here about the Democratic competition for the nomination in 2020.  Why?  See the title to the post.  Yes, the American electoral cycle means that the next election campaign starts the day after an election. Yes, we are all curious about who will face Trump with the big mystery being: can the Democrats (who have a bigger base) unify to defeat Trump?
Media folks have to be selective as they have finite resources (thanks to Bryan Curtis of the Press Box podcast for reminding me of this) so they can't focus on all 20+ candidates).  Plus they want clicks and hits and viewers.  So, what are they doing? Two things:
  1. Making guesses about viability and focusing on those candidates that might stick around the longest.  How do they know someone is more viable? They either focus on polls, which is somewhat circular since those who get more press do better, lather, rinse, repeat OR they focus on fundraising (more on this below).  Of course, they (and the rest of us) screwed up the last time about who was viable.  So, maybe not a great strategy.  
  2. Going for the flavor of the week.  Beto got a week, Buttigieg got a week, Biden is getting maybe two weeks because he is more viable/has more stuff on tape/is more likely to gaffe/whatever.  The media loves narratives, so it is easy to spin up a new narrative with every new candidate.  My own narrative for this tends to be: FFS, can't someone stay in the Senate so that the Dems, if they win the White House in 2020, can actually govern.  
Oh, and as Curtis acknowledged, there seems to be a lot of sexism in who is the flavor of the week.  It should be Kamala Harris for burning Robert Barr to the ground in his appearance last week.  Nope, probably more Biden.

The key is this: we have no idea who is going to do well when the votes are cast.  Once the primaries start, then we will know if Elizabeth Warren's combo of policy papers and Dad jokes is working; whether a former  prosecutor can play well to a base sick of too much prosecution of the base (Harris); whether Bernie plays well to actual democrats who show up; whether Biden's strategy of playing to old people works; etc, etc. 

Re fundraising--yes, money is important, and much of the fundraising is based on expected viability.  So, guess what, the media is gaming the viability thing... until the voters say otherwise.  Once someone does well or poorly in the first few races, the money will desert the losers and run to the winners.   Perhaps the media is doing the women a favor by setting low expectations? Ok, probably not, but the point here is that the money will come later.  The keys right now are:
  • can you get enough money to sustain until the bigger money rolls in?  
  • Can you hire good staff so that you don't screw up constantly (Biden shows that money does not mean one buys good staff apparently)? 
  • with California earlier in the process, can you compete there?  I saw a survey today about Arizona.  Sorry, but fuck Arizona.  What is going in California?  Hint: Harris and Warren are both likely to play well there.
  • the damned debate rules--that one needs a certain number of money coming in from enough people to make the big debate stage.  I am not looking forward to the mass debates.  Are you?
The key thing with 20 plus candidates is that one does not need to get 30 or 40% in the first races.  They just need to be one of the tallest oompa loompas.  Then the money and press will focus on those folks and the random white male governors and senators can go home (really, Michael Bennett, what are you thinking?).  What makes one a tall oompa loompa?  Well, for Biden, it means getting the AARP vote and telling the young folks to screw off.  For Harris, it might just mean showing folks who well armed she is to debate Trump by ripping his minions to shreds.  For Warren, it might be being the most reasonable progressive with heaps of policy wonkiness.  For the rest? Damned if I know.

See, I am guilty too, as 20 plus candidates are too much to follow.  I am not making decisions based on viability as I have no idea.  I just write selectively because the press has already selected which folks I know more about.   Oh, I also know about Beto and Pete.  Oy.  No thanks.

Anyhow, my mantra will be that it is too damned early.  And I will focus on one single question--not who will win the nomination, but whether they can win without alienating a hunk of the Democrats.  As Obama said three years ago, Democracy is on the ballot.  Let's keep that in mind rather than insisting on a candidate that is 100% perfect.  This is an awful time for purity tests.