Wednesday, October 16, 2013
From KSC to LAX and beyond
Scott Andrews shot a large number of photographs of the space shuttle Endeavor's last trip from Florida to its resting place in a Los Angeles museum. Odd to see it on a city street. You can read more about the move at Space Shuttle Endeavour Exclusive: A Timelapse of the Final Ride.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Saturday, August 03, 2013
One year on Mars
NASA has put together the above video from 548 pictures taken by the Curiosity Rover's hazard avoidance camera over a year's period. Mars is rather bleak looking, aint it?
Of course we all know that NASA is covering up evidence of Martians and their civilization, so I'll have to study the video more carefully to see if any of the little green goobers are visible scampering around in it.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Storming the beaches
For this Memorial Day, and no disrespect intended, I present this ferocious battle. All goes well with the landing until the ramps drop and the tanks are slated to disembark. Alas, at that point the invasion stalls.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Dunce with an RC helicopter
We at Flares like RC helicopters and we like dunces, so combining the two is a win-win situation (video swiped from The Borderline Sociopathic Blog for Boys).
Friday, February 22, 2013
Get ready for a languid weekend with Jehro.
Posted by ambisinistral at 8:00 AM No comments:
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Without a villain
For those that had to work Monday today is hump day, so to get you over the hump in hump day we have a rare movie fight without a bad guy.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Stratfor and Gene Tierney
He's right in thinking it is a slippery slope for the U.S., but at the same time, with conventional warfare becoming increasingly rare, it is a slope that humanity -- from the drone strikes, jihadist actions and even government initiated hacking -- seems to be slipping down en masse.
For the article's Hot Stratfor Babe, since murder and what-not was involved, black widow spiders came to mind and that led to the 1954 movie Black Widow and one of its female leads Gene Tierney.
In the movie Gene wasn't actually the black widow killer, in fact she wasn't even a suspect, but whatever.
Ms Tierney started out on Broadway and quickly moved to the movies, where she had a very successful career. However, she had mental health issues and ended up committed where she received numerous shock treatments for therapy. a pretty ghastly story all in all.
Hellfire, Morality and Strategy
By George Friedman, Founder and Chairman, February 19, 2013
Airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles have become a matter of serious dispute lately. The controversy focuses on the United States, which has the biggest fleet of these weapons and which employs them more frequently than any other country. On one side of this dispute are those who regard them simply as another weapon of war whose virtue is the precision with which they strike targets. On the other side are those who argue that in general, unmanned aerial vehicles are used to kill specific individuals, frequently civilians, thus denying the targeted individuals their basic right to some form of legal due process.
Let's begin with the weapons systems, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The media call them drones, but they are actually remotely piloted aircraft. Rather than being in the cockpit, the pilot is at a ground station, receiving flight data and visual images from the aircraft and sending command signals back to it via a satellite data link. Numerous advanced systems and technologies work together to make this possible, but it is important to remember that most of these technologies have been around in some form for decades, and the U.S. government first integrated them in the 1990s. The Predator carries two Hellfire missiles -- precision-guided munitions that, once locked onto the target by the pilot, guide themselves to the target with a high likelihood of striking it. The larger Reaper carries an even larger payload of ordnance -- up to 14 Hellfire missiles or four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs. Most airstrikes from these aircraft use Hellfire missiles, which cause less collateral damage.
Unlike a manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles can remain in the air for an extended period of time -- an important capability for engaging targets that may only present a very narrow target window. This ability to loiter, and then strike quickly when a target presents itself, is what has made these weapons systems preferable to fixed wing aircraft and cruise missiles.
The Argument Against Airstrikes
What makes unmanned aerial vehicle strikes controversial is that they are used to deliberately target specific individuals -- in other words, people who are known or suspected, frequently by name, of being actively hostile to the United States or allied governments. This distinguishes unmanned aerial vehicles from most weapons that have been used since the age of explosives began. The modern battlefield -- and the ancient as well -- has been marked by anonymity. The enemy was not a distinct individual but an army, and the killing of soldiers in an enemy army did not carry with it any sense of personal culpability. In general, no individual soldier was selected for special attention, and his death was not an act of punishment. He was killed because of his membership in an army and not because of any specific action he might have carried out.
Another facet of the controversy is that it is often not clear whether the individuals targeted by these weapons are members of an enemy force. U.S. military or intelligence services reach that conclusion about a target based on intelligence that convinces them of the individual's membership in a hostile group.
There are those who object to all war and all killing; we are not addressing those issues here. We are addressing the arguments of those who object to this particular sort of killing. The reasoning is that when you are targeting a particular individual based on his relationships, you are introducing the idea of culpability, and that that culpability makes the decision-maker -- whoever he is -- both judge and executioner, without due process. Those who argue this line also believe that the use of these weapons is a process that is not only given to error but also fundamentally violates principles of human rights and gives the state the power of life and death without oversight. Again excluding absolute pacifists from this discussion, the objection is that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is not so much an act of war as an act of judgment and, as such, violates international law that requires due process for a soldier being judged and executed. To put it simply, the critics regard what they call drone strikes as summary executions, not acts of war.
The Argument for Airstrikes
The counterargument is that the United States is engaged in a unique sort of war. Al Qaeda and the allied groups and sympathetic individuals that comprise the international jihadist movement are global, dispersed and sparse. They are not a hierarchical military organization. Where conventional forces have divisions and battalions, the global jihadist movement consists primarily of individuals who at times group together into distinct regional franchises, small groups and cells, and frequently even these groups are scattered. Their mission is to survive and to carry out acts of violence designed to demoralize the enemy and increase their political influence among the populations they wish to control.
The primary unit is the individual, and the individuals -- particularly the commanders -- isolate themselves and make themselves as difficult to find as possible. Given their political intentions and resources, sparse forces dispersed without regard to national boundaries use their isolation as the equivalent of technological stealth to make them survivable and able to carefully mount military operations against the enemy at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways.
The argument for using strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles is that it is not an attack on an individual any more than an artillery barrage that kills a hundred is an attack on each individual. Rather, the jihadist movement presents a unique case in which the individual jihadist is the military unit.
In war, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting through the use of force. In all wars and all militaries, imperfect intelligence, carelessness and sometimes malice have caused military action to strike at innocent people. In World War II, not only did bombing raids designed to attack legitimate military targets kill civilians not engaged in activities supporting the military, mission planners knew that in some cases innocents would be killed. This is true in every military conflict and is accepted as one of the consequences of war.
The argument in favor of using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes is, therefore, that the act of killing the individual is a military necessity dictated by the enemy's strategy and that it is carried out with the understanding that both intelligence and precision might fail, no matter how much care is taken. This means not only that civilians might be killed in a particular strike but also that the strike might hit the wrong target. The fact that a specific known individual is being targeted does not change the issue from a military matter to a judicial one.
It would seem to me that these strikes do not violate the rules of war and that they require no more legal overview than was given in thousands of bomber raids in World War II. And we should be cautious in invoking international law. The Hague Convention of 1907 states that:
The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:
To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;The 1949 Geneva Convention states that:
To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
To carry arms openly; and
To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:Ignoring the question of whether jihadist operations are in accordance with the rules and customs of war, their failure to carry a "fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance" is a violation of both the Hague and Geneva conventions. This means that considerations given to soldiers under the rules of war do not apply to those waging war without insignia.
(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
Open insignia is fundamental to the rules of war. It was instituted after the Franco-Prussian war, when French snipers dressed as civilians fired on Germans. It was viewed that the snipers had endangered civilians because it was a soldier's right to defend himself and that since they were dressed as civilians, the French snipers -- not the Germans -- were responsible for the civilian deaths. It follows from this that, to the extent that jihadist militants provide no sign of who they are, they are responsible under international law when civilians are killed because of uncertainty as to who is a soldier and who is not. Thus the onus on ascertaining the nature of the target rests with the United States, but if there is error, the responsibility for that error rests with jihadists for not distinguishing themselves from civilians.
There is of course a greater complexity to this: attacking targets in countries that are not in a state of war with the United States and that have not consented to these attacks. For better or worse, the declaration of war has not been in fashion since World War II. But the jihadist movement has complicated this problem substantially. The jihadists' strategy is to be dispersed. Part of its strategy is to move from areas where it is under military pressure to places that are more secure. Thus the al Qaeda core group moved its headquarters from Afghanistan to Pakistan. But in truth, jihadists operate wherever military and political advantages take them, from the Maghreb to Mumbai and beyond.
In a method of war where the individual is the prime unit and where lack of identification is a primary defensive method, the conduct of intelligence operations wherever the enemy might be, regardless of borders, follows. So do operations to destroy enemy units -- individuals. If a country harbors such individuals knowingly, it is an enemy. If it is incapable of destroying the enemy units, it forfeits its right to claim sovereignty since part of sovereignty is a responsibility to prevent attacks on other countries.
If we simply follow the logic we laid out here, then the critics of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have a weak case. It is not illegitimate to target individuals in a military force like the jihadist movement, and international law holds them responsible for collateral damage, not the United States. Moreover, respecting national sovereignty requires that a country's sovereignty be used to halt attacks against countries with which they are not at war. When a country cannot or will not take those steps, and people within their border pose a threat to the United States, the country has no basis for objecting to intelligence operations and airstrikes. The question, of course, is where this ends. Yemen or Mali might be one case, but the logic here does not preclude any country. Indeed, since al Qaeda tried in the past to operate in the United States itself, and its operatives might be in the United States, it logically follows that the United States could use unmanned aerial vehicles domestically as well. Citizenship is likewise no protection from attacks against a force hostile to the United States.
But within the United States, or countries like the United Kingdom, there are many other preferable means to neutralize jihadist threats. When the police or internal security forces can arrest jihadists plotting attacks, there quite simply is no need for airstrikes from unmanned aerial vehicles. They are tools to be used when a government cannot or will not take action to mitigate the threat.
The Strategic Drawback
There are two points I have been driving toward. The first is that the outrage at targeted killing is not, in my view, justified on moral or legal grounds. The second is that in using these techniques, the United States is on a slippery slope because of the basis on which it has chosen to wage war.
The United States has engaged an enemy that is dispersed across the globe. If the strategy is to go wherever the enemy is, then the war is limitless. It is also endless. The power of the jihadist movement is that it is diffuse. It does not need vast armies to be successful. Therefore, the destruction of some of its units will always result in their replacement. Quality might decline for a while but eventually will recover.
The enemy strategy is to draw the United States into an extended conflict that validates its narrative that the United States is permanently at war with Islam. It wants to force the United States to engage in as many countries as possible. From the U.S. point of view, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because they can attack the jihadist command structure without risk to ground forces. From the jihadist point of view as well, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because their efficiency allows the jihadists to lure the United States into other countries and, with sufficient manipulation, can increase the number of innocents who are killed.
In this sort of war, the problem of killing innocents is practical. It undermines the strategic effort. The argument that it is illegal is dubious, and to my mind, so is the argument that it is immoral. The argument that it is ineffective in achieving U.S. strategic goals of eliminating the threat of terrorist actions by jihadists is my point.
Unmanned aerial vehicles provide a highly efficient way to destroy key enemy targets with very little risk to personnel. But they also allow the enemy to draw the United States into additional theaters of operation because the means is so efficient and low cost. However, in the jihadists' estimate, the political cost to the United States is substantial. The broader the engagement, the greater the perception of U.S. hostility to Islam, the easier the recruitment until the jihadist forces reach a size that can't be dealt with by isolated airstrikes.
In warfare, enemies will try to get you to strike at what they least mind losing. The case against strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles is not that they are ineffective against specific targets but that the targets are not as vital as the United States thinks. The United States believes that the destruction of the leadership is the most efficient way to destroy the threat of the jihadist movement. In fact it only mitigates the threat while new leadership emerges. The strength of the jihadist movement is that it is global, sparse and dispersed. It does not provide a target whose destruction weakens the movement. However, the jihadist movement's weakness derives from its strength: It is limited in what it can do and where.
The problem of unmanned aerial vehicles is that they are so effective from the U.S. point of view that they have become the weapon of first resort. Thus, the United States is being drawn into operations in new areas with what appears to be little cost. In the long run, it is not clear that the cost is so little. A military strategy to defeat the jihadists is impossible. At its root, the real struggle against the jihadists is ideological, and that struggle simply cannot be won with Hellfire missiles. A strategy of mitigation using airstrikes is possible, but such a campaign must not become geographically limitless. Unmanned aerial vehicles lead to geographical limitlessness. That is their charm; that is their danger.
Hellfire, Morality and Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.
You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley
Due to the Presidents Day holiday, Monday morning start of the workweek blues on a Tuesday with Mississippi John Hurt.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Making Plans for Nigel
Get ready for a blissful weekend of sorts with Nouvelle Vague.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Stratfor and Mila Kunis
Russia had been attempting to leverage a monopoly on natural gas supply to Europe for diplomatic and power politics reasons, but that policy is weakening as other sources of fossil fuels come on line. This is further complicating russia's position because a large percentage of their GNP comes from oil and natural gas sales.
It's a good article and well worth the read.
For the article's Hot Stratfor babe I naturally turned to Russian actresses and, after my usual exhaustive and thorough search, I selected Mila Kunis for the honor. Granted, Mila is actually Ukrainian and has lived in the U.S. since the age of 7, but that's close enough to Russian for me.
Ms Kunis has had a successful career, starting out in The Seventies Show on television and transitioning into movie roles while still dabbling in TV. Looking at her credits she's very busy and never seems to lack for work.
The Past, Present and Future of Russian Energy Strategy
By Lauren Goodrich and Marc Lanthemann, February 12, 2013
The future of Russia's ability to remain a global energy supplier and the strength the Russian energy sector gives the Kremlin are increasingly in question. After a decade of robust energy exports and revenues, Russia is cutting natural gas prices to Europe while revenue projections for its energy behemoth, Gazprom, are declining starting this year.
Russia holds the world's largest proven reserves of natural gas and continually alternates with Saudi Arabia as the top oil producer. The country supplies a third of Europe's oil and natural gas and is starting to export more to the energy-hungry East Asian markets. The energy sector is far more than a commercial asset for Moscow; it has been one of the pillars of Russia's stabilization and increasing strength for more than a century. The Kremlin has designated energy security as the primary issue for Russia's national security, especially since recent changes in global and domestic trends have cast doubts on the energy sector's continuing strength.
Throughout Russian history, the country's energy sector periodically has strengthened and weakened. Managing this cycle has been a centerpiece of Russia's domestic and foreign policy since czarist times. This historical burden now rests on Vladimir Putin's regime.
Russia's Imperatives and the Energy Factor
Russia is an inherently vulnerable country, surrounded by other great powers and possessing no easily defensible borders. In addition, Russia is a massive, mostly inhospitable territory populated by diverse ethnic groups that historically have been at odds with Moscow's centralized authority. This leaves Russia with a clear set of imperatives to hold together as a country and establish itself as a regional power. First, Russia must consolidate its society under one authority. Second, it must expand its power across its immediate neighborhood to create buffers against other powers. (The creation of the Soviet Union is the clearest example of this imperative in action.) Finally, it must leverage its natural resources to achieve a balance with the great powers beyond its periphery.
Russia has used a variety of tools throughout history to achieve these imperatives, ranging from agricultural exports to pure military conquest and intimidation. Starting in the late 1800s, Russia added energy to the list of vital commodities it could use to achieve its central strategic goals. By the 1950s, Russia's energy sector had become one of the major pillars of its economic and political strength.
The revenues from oil and natural gas exports show how the energy sector empowered the Kremlin to consolidate the country. Energy export revenues for the Russian Empire began flowing into government coffers in the late 1800s, with oil export revenues making up 7 percent of the export earnings. These revenues rose to 14 percent in the late 1920s during the early stages of the Soviet Union, and by the 1950s accounted for half of Soviet export earnings. Currently, energy revenues make up half of the government's budget. This capital influx was and continues to be instrumental in helping Russia build the military and industrial basis needed to maintain its status as a regional -- if not global -- power. However, as the Russian governments became dependent on energy, the revenues also became a large vulnerability.
Beyond export revenues, the energy sector has contributed to the creation of a domestically stable and industrialized state. Russia's domestic energy consumption is very high due to extremely cold weather for most of the year, but despite inefficiencies within the energy sector and the cost of producing energy, the country's domestic reserves have enabled Moscow to provide its citizens and the industries that employ them with low energy prices.
The energy sector also contributes to Russia's ability to expand its influence to its immediate neighbors. Moscow's use of energy as leverage in the buffer states differs from country to country and ranges from controlling regional energy production (as it previously did in the Azerbaijani and Kazakh oil fields) to subsidizing cheap energy supplies to the countries and controlling the energy transport infrastructure. Russia has used similar strategies to shape relationships beyond the former Soviet states. For instance, Russia is one of Europe's two main energy suppliers and is the only European supplier with large reserves of oil and natural gas and historically cheap prices. Russia's physical connectivity with Europe and ability to undercut any competitor have served as the basis of many of Moscow's relationships in Europe.
Evolution of Russian Energy Strategies
Energy's usefulness as a means of achieving Russia's three main imperatives has altered over time because Russia has had to change its strategies depending on shifts in domestic or international circumstances. Moscow's strength lies in its flexibility in managing its energy sector.
The importance of Russian energy was established in the late 1800s, when the monarchy saw great potential for the Russian Empire if it could develop this sector on a large scale. However, the empire had neither the technology nor the capital to start up an indigenous energy industry. As a solution, the monarchy eased its foreign investment restrictions, inviting European and U.S. firms to develop the Baku and Volga oil fields. This brought about a brief period of warmer relations between the Russian Empire and many Western partners, particularly the United Kingdom, France and the United States. All parties soon realized that the only way to make the Russian oil business profitable despite the high costs associated with the country's harsh and vast geography was to transform Russia into a massive producer. By the turn of the century, the Russian Empire was producing 31 percent of global oil exports.
As the importance of the Russian Empire's energy sector grew, it became clear that Russia's internal stability greatly affected the sector. The Bolsheviks used the energy sector in their attempts to overthrow the monarchy in the early 1900s. The oil-producing regions were one of the primary hubs in which the Bolsheviks operated because energy was one of the few sectors with organized workers. In addition, the Bolsheviks used the oil rail networks to distribute propaganda across the country and abroad. In 1904, when the Russian Empire cracked down on an uprising in St. Petersburg, mostly Bolshevik protesters set the Baku oil fields on fire. This cut Russia's oil exports by two-thirds, forcing Moscow and the foreign markets to realize oil exports' great vulnerability to Russian domestic stability.
Russia's modern energy strategies began forming after World War II. With the Soviet Union left standing as one of two global hegemons towering over a divided Europe, Moscow saw no barriers to achieving dominance in the global energy field. Between the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet oil output had doubled, making the Soviet Union once again the second-largest oil producer in the world and primary supplier to both Eastern and Western Europe. Revenues from oil exports started to make up nearly half of Soviet export income.
Because the Soviet Union was producing oil en masse and the Soviet system kept labor costs low, Russia was able to sell its oil at prices almost 50 percent lower than oil from the Middle East. The subsidization of oil to the Soviet bloc and then to Western European countries helped Moscow undercut Western regimes and strengthen its position in its own periphery -- a strategy that the CIA dubbed the Soviet Economic Offensive. For the Soviets, this was not about making money (although they were making money) as much as it was about shaping a sphere of influence and undermining the West. This strategy came at a cost, since Moscow was not bringing in as much revenue as it could and was producing oil inefficiently, rapidly depleting its fields.
In the 1970s, the price of oil skyrocketed due to a series of crises mostly in the Middle East. At the same time, Russia was already feeling the strain of sustaining the massive Soviet Union. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's regime was left with a choice: use the high global prices as a reason to raise prices in Eastern Europe and benefit the Soviet economy, or continue subsidizing the Eastern bloc in order to keep it beholden to Moscow and not push it to start thinking about other energy sources. It was a choice between two imperatives: Soviet national stability and holding the buffer zone. In the end, Moscow chose to protect its own interests and in 1975 raised the price of oil for its customers, allowing for further increases based on global market prices. By 1976, oil prices in the Eastern bloc had nearly doubled, remaining below global prices but rising high enough to force some countries in the bloc to take out loans.
The Soviet focus on maintaining high energy revenues continued through the mid-1980s, when these revenues accounted for nearly all of the Soviet Union's hard currency inflows. But the Soviets were dealt a double blow in the mid-1980s when the price of oil collapsed and the West imposed an embargo on Soviet oil, prompting Saudi Arabia to flood the oil markets. Moreover, the Soviet Union was falling far behind the West in technology, particularly in energy and agriculture. In response, starting in 1985, the Soviet Union moved closer to a market-based energy economy, raising prices for the Eastern bloc, requiring hard currencies for payment and allowing foreign firms to re-enter the energy sector.
But Russian strategy shifts were not deep and timely enough to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the decade following the fall of the Soviet bloc, the Russian energy industry was in disarray. The energy liberalization that started under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s was taken to an extreme under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. As a result, production fell by half and the Russian energy sector was divided between foreign groups and the emerging Russian oligarch class.
This changed under Vladimir Putin in 2000. One of the first items on Putin's agenda to help stabilize the country was to consolidate the energy sector under state control. This meant radically reversing the liberal policies from the two decades before. The government effectively nationalized the majority of the energy sector under three state behemoths: Gazprom, Rosneft and Transneft. The Kremlin became more aggressive in negotiating supply contracts with the former Soviet states and Europe, locking them into large volumes at extraordinarily high prices because these customers had no alternative energy supplies. The Kremlin also began cutting energy supplies to certain markets -- blaming troublesome transit states such as Ukraine -- in order to shape other political negotiations.
Though Moscow's energy strategy became fairly aggressive, it helped bring about a stronger and more stable Russia. Russian energy revenues soared due to high global oil prices and the high natural gas prices it charged in Europe. Russia had excess funds to pump into its political, social, economic and military sectors. Energy politics also helped Russia leverage its influence in its former backyard and forced Europe to step back from countering Russia's resurgence. Of course, the financial crises that swept Europe and Russia in 2008 reminded Russia of its need for its biggest energy clients when oil prices dropped and demand began declining.
Challenges to Maintaining Russian Energy
Russia's top concern is its vulnerability to fluctuations in the price of energy. With half of the Russian budget coming from energy revenues (of that, 80 percent is from oil and 20 percent comes from natural gas), the government could be crippled should energy prices fall. The Kremlin has already decreased its budget projections for oil prices to $93 per barrel instead of $119 -- though even at that price, the government is playing a game of chance. Stratfor is not in the business of forecasting oil prices, but historical patterns show that major international crises and fluctuations in global consumption and production patterns repeatedly have had sufficient impact on oil prices and on Moscow's revenues to destabilize the country.
Natural gas export revenues are also currently in question. With alternative natural gas supplies coming online for Russia's largest consumer, Europe, the Kremlin has been forced to lower its prices in recent months. This year, Gazprom expects to give European consumers $4.7 billion -- approximately 10 percent of Gazprom's net revenues -- in rebates due to price cuts.
In its current configuration, Russia's energy sector is under strain. The consolidation of the sector mostly under two large state firms had many benefits for the Kremlin, but after a decade of consolidation the disadvantages are piling up. With little competition for Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom, the firm is lagging in technology and is considered unfriendly to outside investment. Russia's oil giant, Rosneft, recently began evolving into a larger monopoly like Gazprom, which could lead it to fall into a similar trap. With future energy projects in Russia requiring more advanced technology (due to their location and environment) and more capital, both Gazprom and Rosneft need modernization and foreign investment.
Corruption is also a major factor, with varying estimates of 20 to 40 percent of Gazprom's revenues lost to either corrupt or inefficient practices. Rosneft has similar problems. This loss would be sustainable with Moscow's previous high energy revenues, but it will not be sustainable in the future should energy prices fall or the maintenance and expansion of the energy sector become more expensive. The Kremlin is probing Gazprom, although with a culture of corruption rampant throughout Russian history there is little the Kremlin will be able to do to eliminate wrongdoing within the natural gas firm.
Moreover, Europe's dependence on Russian energy is decreasing. The natural gas shortages experienced throughout Europe during the Russian-Ukrainian crises of 2006 and 2009 were a stark reminder of how vulnerable European nations were because of their dependence on Russian natural gas exports. Both unilaterally and through the European Union, European countries began developing strategies that would allow them to mitigate not only Europe's vulnerability to disputes between Moscow and intermediary transit states, but also its general dependence on energy from Russia.
The accelerated development of new and updated liquefied natural gas import facilities is one such effort. This will give certain countries -- Lithuania and Poland, most notably -- the ability to import natural gas from suppliers around the globe and bypass Russia's traditional lever: physical connectivity. This is particularly significant in light of the accelerated development of several unconventional natural gas plays in the world, particularly the shale reserves in the United States. The development of a pipeline project that would bring non-Russian Caspian natural gas to the European market is another attempt -- albeit less successful so far -- to decrease European dependence on Russian natural gas.
Additionally, a set of EU-wide policies, including the Third Energy Package, has begun giving EU member nations the political and legal tools to mitigate Gazprom's dominance in their respective natural gas supply chains. This common framework also allows European nations to present a more unified front in challenging certain business practices they believe are monopolistic -- the latest example being the EU Commission probe into Gazprom's pricing strategy in Central Europe. This, coupled with the EU-funded efforts to physically interconnect the natural gas grids of EU members in Central Europe, has made it increasingly difficult for Russia to use natural gas pricing as a foreign policy tool. This is a major change in the way Moscow has dealt with the region for the past decade, when it rewarded closer ties with Russia with low gas prices (as with Belarus) and increased rates for those who defied it (the Baltics).
Finally, Russia faces the simple yet grave possibility that the escalating financial and political crisis in Europe will continue to reduce the Continent's energy consumption, or at least preclude any growth in consumption in the next decade.
Russia's Next Move
The Putin administration is well aware of the challenges facing the Russian energy sector. Russia's attempts in the past decade to shift away from dependence on energy exports by focusing on industrial development have not been particularly successful and keep the country tied to the fate of its energy sector. Russia's strategy of using its energy exports as both a foreign policy tool and a revenue generator is contradictory at times: To use energy in foreign policy, Moscow must be able to lower or raise prices and threaten to cut off supplies, which is anathema to the revenue-generating aspect.
Global and regional circumstances have changed to the point that Moscow has had to prioritize one of the two uses of its energy industry -- and it has unequivocally decided to maintain its revenue-generating capability. The Kremlin has begun crafting a set of policies designed to adjust the country to the changes that will come in the next two decades.
First, Russia is addressing the very damaging uncertainty surrounding its relationship with key transit states that traditionally allowed it to export energy to Europe. The construction of the Ust-Luga oil terminal on the Baltic Sea allows Russia to largely bypass the Belarus pipeline system and ship crude and oil products directly to its consumers. Similarly, the construction of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea -- and eventually its southern counterpart, South Stream, through the Black Sea -- will allow Russian natural gas to bypass the Ukrainian and Belarusian transit systems if necessary. These two pipelines primarily will ensure natural gas deliveries to the major European consumer markets in Germany and Italy, with which Russia seeks to maintain long-term strategic partnerships.
By allowing Russia to guarantee deliveries to its major European customers, the bypass systems ensure Moscow's vital energy revenues. This strategy of future energy export flexibility will also progressively reduce the leverage Minsk and Kiev can exert in warding off Moscow's attempts at consolidating Belarus and Kiev as vassal buffer states -- one of the few foreign policy goals Moscow is still intent on pursuing through energy strategy.
Moreover, Moscow has adapted its energy strategy with European customers amid growing diversification and liberalization efforts. Gazprom has begun expanding the natural gas discounts formerly reserved for strategic partners such as Germany or Italy. The Kremlin knows that its only hope of maintaining natural gas revenues in the face of a potential global shale boom is to lock its customers into price-competitive, long-term contracts. Moscow will continue showing that it can offer European consumers guaranteed high volumes and low-cost deliveries that producers relying on liquefied natural gas shipping for transport can seldom afford.
Finally, Russia is focusing significant attention and funds on developing connections to the growing East Asian energy markets, diversifying its export portfolio should challenges in the European market continue intensifying. One aspect common to all the strategies Russia is set to pursue for the next decade is the high capital needed to complete them; the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline alone is set to cost nearly $15 billion. Despite the effects of the financial crisis in 2009, Russia still has vast capital reserves earmarked for these large-scale projects, but these funds are not infinite.
The Kremlin appears keenly aware of the challenges that Russia will face in the next two decades as another energy cycle draws to an end. Unlike Brezhnev and Gorbachev, Putin has proven capable of enacting effective policy and strategy changes in the Russian energy sphere. While Russia's dependence on high oil prices continues to worry Moscow, Putin has so far managed to respond proactively to the other external shifts in energy consumption and production patterns -- particularly those affecting the European natural gas market. However, the long-term sustainability of the model Russia is moving toward remains doubtful.
The Past, Present and Future of Russian Energy Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.
Two on one
Today's fight to get you over the hump in hump day features two heroes beating up a bad guy in an oddly stylized, and poorly dubbed, fight. A girl gets involved as well.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
David P. Goldman, who has long published under the name Spengler, has a very interesting read called Fertility, Faith, and the Decline of Islam: Strategic Implications. He points out that Moslem countries are facing a steep decline in their birth rate and that, along with the implications of such poor countries trying to support aging populations, this is a sign of crisis in their faith.
I agree. With the growing food crisis and riots across northern Africa, as well as the increasingly violent sectarian violence elsewhere in the Moslem world, it seems that they are cannibalizing each other as the modern world grinds them down.
At any rate, Spengler's article is a good one. Below is an excerpt:
Faith and fertility are linked inextricably. Liberal demographers like Phillip Longman (in The Empty Cradle, 2004) and Eric Kaufmann (Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 2010) made the case forcefully. Sociologist Mary Eberstadt, Nicholas’ wife, wrote a brilliant essay on the subject in 2007 at Policy Review. As noted, I made this argument in 2006. Sociologist Philip Jenkins noticed Iran’s demographic freefall in 2007, but drew the wrong conclusions.
Iran may be one of the world’s most secular countries; some reports put mosque attendance in the Islamic Republic at just 2%, lower than Church of England attendance. When the odious Islamist regime falls at length, we probably will find that there are as few Muslims in Iran as there were Communists in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like other religions rooted in traditional society, for example the nationalist-Catholic faith that Europeans abandoned after the two world wars, Islam cannot abide the onset of modernity. Some forms of religion can flourish in modernity; Islam is not one of them.
The variable that best predicts fertility across all Muslim countries is education: as soon as women become literate, they stop having children. That is a hallmark of a faith that melts away in the harsh light of modernity.
It is well that David Ignatius has noticed what Phillips, Kaufmann, Eberstadt, and I (not to mention Ahmadinejad and Erdogan) have noticed for years: Muslim civilization is in catastrophic decline. It is passing from infancy to senescence without ever reaching maturity. Iran has one last bulge generation of military age men, born before the fertility collapse got underway. It perceives one last historic opportunity to achieve Shi’ite dominance. It won’t have another.
The Leidenfrost effect
When water comes in contact with something much hotter a thin barrier forms that prevents the water from immediately boiling. This is called the Leidenfrost effect and is most common;ly seen when a drop of water skitters across a frying pan when you test it to see if it is hot enough to cook. The above video of a hot nickel ball dropped into a glass of water is a dramatic example of the Leidenfrost effect.in action.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Monday morning, start of the workweek blues by Little Walter.
Friday, February 08, 2013
Get ready for an exotic weekend with Ska Cubano.
Thursday, February 07, 2013
Pulp magazine covers
|Click any image to enlarge|
What struck me about the set these were taken from is the large number of covers that featured bondage in the form of tied up women, whippings and what-not.
Wednesday, February 06, 2013
Stratfor and Sarah Shahi
In the past I've argued that George Friedman overestimated Iran's strategic situation in the region. This article examine Iran's difficulties much more realistically and is an interesting read.
For the article's Hot Stratfor Babe I naturally turned to Iranian actresses and after due deliberation I selected Sarah Shahi for the profound honor. OK... she's actually American, but her father was Iranian so that's good enough in my book.
Ms Shahi started out as an NFL cheerleader and moved on to acting. Aside from a few small parts in movies, she's primarily done television, with her roles in Chicago Fire and Fairly Legal being her most recognizable parts to date.
U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama's Second Term
By Reva Bhalla, Vice President of Global Affairs, February 5, 2013
As U.S. President Barack Obama's second-term foreign policy team begins to take shape, Iran remains unfinished business for the U.S. administration. The diplomatic malaise surrounding this issue over the past decade has taken its toll on Washington and Tehran. Even as the United States and Iran are putting out feelers for another round of negotiations, expectations for any breakthrough understandably remain low. Still, there has been enough movement over the past week to warrant a closer look at this long-standing diplomatic impasse.
At the Munich Security Conference held Feb. 1-3, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the United States would be willing to hold direct talks with Iran under the right conditions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded positively to the offer but warned that Iran would not commit unless Washington shows a "fair and real" intention to resolve the issues dividing the two sides.
An Uneven Record in U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy
This diplomatic courting ritual between the United States and Iran has occurred a handful of times over the past several years. Like previous times, the public offer of talks was preceded by denials of secret pre-negotiations. (This time, Ali Akbar Velayati, a presidential hopeful and senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied that he met with a U.S. representative in Oman.) Meanwhile, as a sideshow to the more critical U.S.-Iranian bilateral track, Iran has announced it will hold negotiations with the P-5+1 group Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan to demonstrate its willingness to seek a compromise on the nuclear issue as part of a broader deal. For good measure, Iran has balanced these diplomatic moves with an announcement that it is upgrading uranium centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Though this will rile Israel, the thought of Iran accelerating its nuclear program could add just the right amount of urgency to propel the talks.
The first step to any negotiation is defining a common interest. For the United States and Iran, those interests have evolved over the past decade. In 2003, they shared an interest in bringing Saddam Hussein down and neutralizing a Sunni jihadist threat. By 2007, it was a mutual interest in relieving the U.S. military burden in Iraq. In 2011, it was a common interest in avoiding a war in the Strait of Hormuz. In 2013, as the region fragments beyond either side's control, Washington and Tehran are each looking to prevent the coming quagmire from undermining their respective positions in the Middle East.
But talks have also stalled many times due to issues of timing, misreading of intentions, lack of political cohesion or a number of other valid reasons. At base, timing is everything. Both sides need to create a favorable political climate at home to pursue controversial negotiations abroad. Complicating matters, both sides have the mutually contradictory goal of negotiating from a position of strength. In 2007, Iran could still claim to hold thousands of U.S. troops hostage to attacks by its Shiite militant proxies in Iraq. In 2011, a Shiite uprising in Bahrain threatened to upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf in Iran's favor while Iran could at the same time shake energy markets with military maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran, however, couldn't hold that position for long. With time, Tehran's still-limited covert capabilities in the eastern Arabian Peninsula were exposed. Meanwhile, the United States built up its military presence in the Persian Gulf. With minesweepers now concentrated in the area, Iran now must think twice before carrying out provocations in the strait that could accidentally trigger a military intervention.
Before Tehran could recover, the regional climate flipped against Iran. In 2012, the Sunni rebellion in Syria gained steam, in no small part due to a growing regional imperative to deprive Iran of its Mediterranean foothold in the Levant. As Iran's position in Syria and Lebanon began to slip, the Sunni momentum predictably spilled into Iraq, where massive Sunni protests against the Shiite government in Baghdad already are under way.
Now, Iran no longer poses a strategic threat to U.S. interests in the way it did just a few years ago, and the prospect of Iran solidifying an arc of influence from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean has evaporated. Iran is on the defensive, trying to help its allies survive in Syria and Lebanon while at the same time being forced to devote more resources to holding its position in Iraq. And while Iran's overseas expenses are rising, its budget is simultaneously shrinking under the weight of sanctions. U.S.- and European-led sanctions over the past two years have gradually moved from a policy of targeted sanctions against individuals and firms to a near-total trade embargo that has prompted some Iranian officials to openly admit that Iran's oil revenues have dropped more than 40 percent.
At this point, the United States has two options. It could allow the regional forces to run their course and whittle down Iran's strength over time. Or it could exploit the current conditions and try negotiating with Iran from a position of strength while it still has the military capacity to pose a legitimate threat to Iran. Iran may be weakening, but it still has levers with which to pressure the United States. Preparations are already under way for Alawite forces in Syria to transition to an insurgency with Iran's backing. In Afghanistan, Iran has militant options to snarl an already fragile U.S. exit strategy. So far, the United States has shown a great deal of restraint in Syria; it does not want to find itself being drawn into another conflict zone in the Islamic world where Iran can play a potent spoiler role.
It appears that the United States is pursuing the strategy of giving negotiations another go with the expectation that these talks will extend beyond the immediate nuclear issue. Iran has frequently complained that it cannot trust the United States if Washington cannot speak with one voice. For example, while the U.S. administration has pursued talks in the past, Congress has tightened economic sanctions and has tried to insert clauses to prevent any rollback of sanctions. The economic pressure produced by the sanctions has helped the United States fortify its negotiating position, but the administration has tried to reserve options by keeping a list of sanctions it could repeal layer by layer should the talks yield progress.
Seeking Flexibility in Sanctions
Washington could look to Europe for more flexibility for its negotiating needs. In a recent story overlooked by the mainstream media, the General Court of the European Union on Jan. 29 revoked sanctions against Bank Mellat, one of the largest commercial banks in Iran that is primarily involved in financing Iran's vital energy sector. Bank Mellat was sanctioned in 2010 based on allegations that it was a state-owned bank involved in Iran's nuclear proliferation activities. But the EU court has now ruled that there was insufficient evidence to link the bank to the nuclear program. Even so, though Iran claims that the bank has been fully privatized since 2010, it is difficult to believe that it does not maintain vital links with the regime. Nonetheless, rumors are circulating that more EU sanctions de-listings could be in store.
Given the impossibility of sealing every legal loophole, perception plays a vital role in upholding any sanctions regime. Over the past two years, the United States -- in coordination with an even more aggressive European Union -- has signaled to traders, banks and insurers across the globe that the costs of doing business with Iran are not worth jeopardizing their ability to operate in Western markets. Enough businessmen were spooked into curbing, or at least scaling back, their interaction with Iran and known Iranian front companies that Iran has experienced a significant cut in revenue. But with large amounts of money to be made in a market under sanctions, it can be very difficult politically to maintain this level of economic pressure over an extended period of time. And the more the sanctions begin to resemble a trade embargo, the more ammunition Iran has for its propaganda arm in claiming sanctions are harming Iranian civilians. The prospect of additional sanctions being repealed in court in the coming months could deflate the West's economic campaign against Iran and give more businesses the confidence to break the sanctions -- but if the sanctions were intended to force negotiations in the first place, that may be a risk the U.S. administration is willing to take.
There is no clear link between the recent U.S. offer of talks and the sanctions de-listing of Bank Mellat. But if the United States were serious about using its position of relative strength to pursue a deal with Iran, we would expect to see some slight easing up on the sanctions pressure. This would likely begin in Europe, where there would be more flexibility in the sanctions legislation than there would be in the U.S. Congress. Germany, Iran's largest trading partner in Europe, has perhaps not coincidentally been the strongest proponent for this latest attempt at direct U.S.-Iranian talks. It is also notable that U.S. President Barack Obama's picks for his second-term Cabinet include senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, both of who have openly advocated dialogue with Iran.
Iran is now the most critical player to watch. Iran is weakening in the region and is becoming heavily constrained at home, but even so, the clerical regime is not desperate to reach a deal with Washington. Reaching an understanding with the United States could mitigate the decline of Alawite forces in Syria and the Sunni backlash that Iran is likely to face in Iraq, but it would not necessarily forestall them. And with general elections in Iran slated for June, the political climate in the country will not be conducive to the give-and-take needed to move the negotiations forward, at least in the near term.
The United States would prefer to reduce the number of unknowns in an increasingly volatile region by reaching an understanding with Iran. The irony is that with or without that understanding, Iran's position in the region will continue to weaken. Even if Washington doesn't need this negotiation as badly as Iran does, now is as good a time as any for a second-term president to give this dialogue another try.
U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama's Second Term is republished with permission of Stratfor.
Fracas on the subway
Today's fight scene to get you over the hump in hump day features a hero and a girl getting chased onto a subway by a bunch of bad guys. Much mayhem ensues, and it turns out the girl can fight too. Actually, pretty good choreography in the scene.
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
The home office of tomorrow today
In 1967 Walter Cronkite tours a home office of the 21st Century. It strikes me that things have actually gotten smaller and more portable than in the vision he sees.
Monday, February 04, 2013
If you need spherical bushes for your landscaping
With Spring somewhere around the corner your thoughts might be turning to gardening. And, if your thinking about gardening, you're likely also vexed by the problem of how to prune spherical bushes. I know I am.
Thankfully the Dutch company Kwekerij Machines has just what you're looking for -- namely a contraption to make spherical bushes. While the video above has no sound track, the brief video below has one so's you can hear one of these things in action.
Monday morning, start of the workweek blues by Doctor Ross.
Sunday, February 03, 2013
On a street corner
On a street corner in some city the Royal Jug Band does a cover of Woody Guthrie's I Ain't Got No Home. Pretty good stuff. Oddly, it doesn't seem to be a particularly busy street. I wonder why they picked it?
Saturday, February 02, 2013
Stratfor and Lindsay Lohan
He then transitions to the situation in Syria where he points out interventions nood not be with troops, like the French in Mali, but can also be done with weapons, supplies and money. His peimary focus is then on how and why the Saudis are actively supporting the jihadist elements of the Syrian insurrection.
Since intervention was the topic of the article, Lindsay Lohan was the natural choice since she is perpetually in need of an intervention.
While being an actress and singer Ms Lohan is of course much better known as fodder for tabloids with her drunken binges, arrests and over-the-top ludicrous behavior.
The Consequences of Intervening in Syria
By Scott Stewart, Vice President of Analysis, January 31, 2013
The French military's current campaign to dislodge jihadist militants from northern Mali and the recent high-profile attack against a natural gas facility in Algeria are both directly linked to the foreign intervention in Libya that overthrew the Gadhafi regime. There is also a strong connection between these events and foreign powers' decision not to intervene in Mali when the military conducted a coup in March 2012. The coup occurred as thousands of heavily armed Tuareg tribesmen were returning home to northern Mali after serving in Moammar Gadhafi's military, and the confluence of these events resulted in an implosion of the Malian military and a power vacuum in the north. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadists were able to take advantage of this situation to seize power in the northern part of the African nation.
As all these events transpire in northern Africa, another type of foreign intervention is occurring in Syria. Instead of direct foreign military intervention, like that taken against the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011, or the lack of intervention seen in Mali in March 2012, the West -- and its Middle Eastern partners -- have pursued a middle-ground approach in Syria. That is, these powers are providing logistical aid to the various Syrian rebel factions but are not intervening directly.
Just as there were repercussions for the decisions to conduct a direct intervention in Libya and not to intervene in Mali, there will be repercussions for the partial intervention approach in Syria. Those consequences are becoming more apparent as the crisis drags on.
Intervention in Syria
For more than a year now, countries such as the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and European states have been providing aid to the Syrian rebels. Much of this aid has been in the form of humanitarian assistance, providing things such as shelter, food and medical care for refugees. Other aid has helped provide the rebels with non-lethal military supplies such as radios and ballistic vests. But a review of the weapons spotted on the battlefield reveals that the rebels are also receiving an increasing number of lethal supplies.
For example, there have been numerous videos released showing Syrian rebels using weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M-60 recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. The Syrian government has also released videos of these weapons after seizing them in arms caches. What is so interesting about these weapons is that they were not in the Syrian military's inventory prior to the crisis, and they all likely were purchased from Croatia. We have also seen many reports and photos of Syrian rebels carrying Austrian Steyr Aug rifles, and the Swiss government has complained that Swiss-made hand grenades sold to the United Arab Emirates are making their way to the Syrian rebels.
With the Syrian rebel groups using predominantly second-hand weapons from the region, weapons captured from the regime, or an assortment of odd ordnance they have manufactured themselves, the appearance and spread of these exogenous weapons in rebel arsenals over the past several months is at first glance evidence of external arms supply. The appearance of a single Steyr Aug or RBG-6 on the battlefield could be an interesting anomaly, but the variety and concentration of these weapons seen in Syria are well beyond the point where they could be considered coincidental.
This means that the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The external supporters are providing not only training, intelligence and assistance, but also weapons -- exogenous weapons that make the external provision of weapons obvious to the world. It is also interesting that in Syria, like Afghanistan, two of the major external supporters are Washington and Riyadh -- though in Syria they are joined by regional powers such as Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, rather than Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, the Saudis and the Americans allowed their partners in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to determine which of the myriad militant groups in Afghanistan received the bulk of the funds and weapons they were providing. This resulted in two things. First, the Pakistanis funded and armed groups that they thought they could best use as surrogates in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Second, they pragmatically tended to funnel cash and weapons to the groups that were the most successful on the battlefield -- groups such as those led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose effectiveness on the battlefield was tied directly to their zealous theology that made waging jihad against the infidels a religious duty and death during such a struggle the ultimate accomplishment.
A similar process has been taking place for nearly two years in Syria. The opposition groups that have been the most effective on the battlefield have tended to be the jihadist-oriented groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Not surprisingly, one reason for their effectiveness was the skills and tactics they learned fighting the coalition forces in Iraq. Yet despite this, the Saudis -- along with the Qataris and the Emiratis -- have been arming and funding the jihadist groups in large part because of their success on the battlefield. As my colleague Kamran Bokhari noted in February 2012, the situation in Syria was providing an opportunity for jihadists, even without external support. In the fractured landscape of the Syrian opposition, the unity of purpose and battlefield effectiveness of the jihadists was in itself enough to ensure that these groups attracted a large number of new recruits.
But that is not the only factor conducive to the radicalization of Syrian rebels. First, war -- and particularly a brutal, drawn-out war -- tends to make extremists out of the fighters involved in it. Think Stalingrad, the Cold War struggles in Central America or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans following the dissolution of Yugoslavia; this degree of struggle and suffering tends to make even non-ideological people ideological. In Syria, we have seen many secular Muslims become stringent jihadists. Second, the lack of hope for an intervention by the West removed any impetus for maintaining a secular narrative. Many fighters who had pinned their hopes on NATO were greatly disappointed and angered that their suffering was ignored. It is not unusual for Syrian fighters to say something akin to, "What has the West done for us? We now have only God."
When these ideological factors were combined with the infusion of money and arms that has been channeled to jihadist groups in Syria over the past year, the growth of Syrian jihadist groups accelerated dramatically. Not only are they a factor on the battlefield today, but they also will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
The Saudi Gambit
Despite the jihadist blowback the Saudis experienced after the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan -- and the current object lesson of the jihadists Syria sent to fight U.S. forces in Iraq now leading groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra -- the Saudi government has apparently calculated that its use of jihadist proxies in Syria is worth the inherent risk.
There are some immediate benefits for Riyadh. First, the Saudis hope to be able to break the arc of Shiite influence that reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Having lost the Sunni counterweight to Iranian power in the region with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the installation of a Shiite-led government friendly to Iran, the Saudis view the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni regime in Syria as a dramatic improvement to their national security.
Supporting the jihad in Syria as a weapon against Iranian influence also gives the Saudis a chance to burnish their Islamic credentials internally in an effort to help stave off criticism that they are too secular and Westernized. It allows the Saudi regime the opportunity to show that it is helping Muslims under assault by the vicious Syrian regime.
Supporting jihadists in Syria also gives the Saudis an opportunity to ship their own radicals to Syria, where they can fight and possibly die. With a large number of unemployed, underemployed and radicalized young men, the jihad in Syria provides a pressure valve similar to the past struggles in Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia and Afghanistan. The Saudis are not only trying to winnow down their own troubled youth; we have received reports from a credible source that the Saudis are also facilitating the travel of Yemeni men to training camps in Turkey, where they are trained and equipped before being sent to Syria to fight. The reports also indicate that the young men are traveling for free and receiving a stipend for their service. These young radicals from Saudi Arabia and Yemen will even further strengthen the jihadist groups in Syria by providing them with fresh troops.
The Saudis are gaining temporary domestic benefits from supporting jihad in Syria, but the conflict will not last forever, nor will it result in the deaths of all the young men who go there to fight. This means that someday the men who survive will come back home, and through the process we refer to as "tactical Darwinism" the inept fighters will have been weeded out, leaving a core of competent militants that the Saudis will have to deal with.
But the problems posed by jihadist proxies in Syria will have effects beyond the House of Saud. The Syrian jihadists will pose a threat to the stability of Syria in much the same way the Afghan groups did in the civil war they launched for control of Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah regime. Indeed, the violence in Afghanistan got worse after Najibullah's fall in 1992, and the suffering endured by Afghan civilians in particular was egregious.
Now we are seeing that the jihadist militants in Libya pose a threat not only to the Libyan regime -- there are serious problems in eastern Libya -- but also to foreign interests in the country, as seen in the attack on the British ambassador and the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Moreover, the events in Mali and Algeria in recent months show that Libya-based militants and the weapons they possess also pose a regional threat. Similar long-lasting and wide-ranging repercussions can be expected to flow from the intervention in Syria.
The Consequences of Intervening in Syria is republished with permission of Stratfor.
Friday, February 01, 2013
Everything is never quite enough
Get ready for a greedy weekend with Wasis Diop.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
The Problem by Thomas Hardy
Shall we conceal the Case, or tell it -
We who believe the evidence?
Here and there the watch-towers knell it
With a sullen significance,
Heard of the few who hearken intently and carry an eagerly upstrained
Hearts that are happiest hold not by it;
Better we let, then, the old view reign;
Since there is peace in it, why decry it?
Since there is comfort, why disdain?
Note not the pigment the while that the painting determines
humanity's joy and pain!
A wandering couch
A couch with a passengers wanders around the campus of Kansas State and takes in the sights.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Hiding in Siberia
The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—"a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar," with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:The Smithsonian Magazine has an amazing story about a family of hermits found living in the wilds of Siberia. The father, Karp Lykov, was a member of a fundamentalist Orthodox sect called the Old Believers.
The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: 'This is for our sins, our sins.' The other, keeping behind a post... sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia.
Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, "frankly curious." Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, "We are not allowed that!" When Pismenskaya asked, "Have you ever eaten bread?" the old man answered: "I have. But they have not. They have never seen it." At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. "When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing." (source: Smithsonian Magazine)
The sect had been persecuted under the Tsars, and things only got worse for them when the communists took over. In 1936, during the purges, Lykov's brother was killed in front of him for his faith and Karp took his family and fled into the Siberian wilderness seeking safety. Over the years they moved several times and faced bouts of near starvation.
They were found in 1978 by a group of geologists surveying the area. The article discusses their introduction to the modern world, and the difficulties they had adjusting. It is a fascinating story of lives spent on the fringe.
For this fight scene to get you over the hump in hump day we have a guy, presumably our hero, who some reason attacks a building full of scoundrels. Actually, most of the scene is a single, impressively long tracking shot. I wonder how many takes they needed?
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Stratfor and Han Jong Sim
It is an interesting read, and he also covers China and Iran's maneuvers, diplomaric and otherwise, in light of North Korea's so far successful strategy.
Since the article was about North Korea, for its Hot Stratfor Babe I decided to plunge into the enormous pool of North Korean actresses for the selection. After my usual exhaustive research I selected Han Jong Sim, who was the star in the North Korean rom-com Comrade Kim Goes Flying.
The movie is about a coal mining girl who dreams of joining the circus, along her way to the big top she also finds love. Sounds delighful.
As for Ms Jong, or Ms Han, or Ms Jong (whatever its supposed to be), in keeping with North Korea's whacky and secretive ways, there isn't much information about her aside from the fact that she is also a gymnast.
Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy
By George Friedman, Founder and Chairman, January 29, 2013
North Korea's state-run media reported Sunday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country's top security officials to take "substantial and high-profile important state measures," which has been widely interpreted to mean that North Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang following North Korea's missile test in October. A few days before Kim's statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington's tool, South Korea.
North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface, threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don't succeed in actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something solid to threaten enemies with.
North Korea, of course, has been doing this for years and doing it successfully, so what appears absurd on the surface quite obviously isn't. On the contrary, it has proved to be a very effective maneuver. North Korea is estimated to have a gross domestic product of about $28 billion, about the same as Latvia or Turkmenistan. Yet it has maneuvered itself into a situation where the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea have sat down with it at the negotiating table in a bid to persuade it not to build weapons. Sometimes, the great powers give North Korea money and food to persuade it not to develop weapons. It sometimes agrees to a halt, but then resumes its nuclear activities. It never completes a weapon, but it frequently threatens to test one. And when it carries out such tests, it claims its tests are directed at the United States and South Korea, as if the test itself were a threat.
There is brilliance in North Korea's strategy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea was left in dire economic straits. There were reasonable expectations that its government would soon collapse, leading to the unification of the Korean Peninsula. Naturally, the goal of the North Korean government was regime survival, so it was terrified that outside powers would invade or support an uprising against it. It needed a strategy that would dissuade anyone from trying that. Being weak in every sense, this wasn't going to be easy, but the North Koreans developed a strategy that we described more than 10 years ago as ferocious, weak and crazy. North Korea has pursued this course since the 1990s, and the latest manifestation of this strategy was on display last week. The strategy has worked marvelously and is still working.
A Three-Part Strategy
First, the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power. Second, they positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are, there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse anyway. And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them would be dangerous since they were liable to engage in the greatest risks imaginable at the slightest provocation.
In the beginning, Pyongyang's ability to appear ferocious was limited to the North Korean army's power to shell Seoul. It had massed artillery along the border and could theoretically devastate the southern capital, assuming the North had enough ammunition, its artillery worked and air power didn't lay waste to its massed artillery. The point was not that it was going to level Seoul but that it had the ability to do so. There were benefits to outsiders in destabilizing the northern regime, but Pyongyang's ferocity -- uncertain though its capabilities were -- was enough to dissuade South Korea and its allies from trying to undermine the regime. Its later move to develop missiles and nuclear weapons followed from the strategy of ferocity -- since nothing was worth a nuclear war, enraging the regime by trying to undermine it wasn't worth the risk.
Many nations have tried to play the ferocity game, but the North Koreans added a brilliant and subtle twist to it: being weak. The North Koreans advertised the weakness of their economy, particularly its food insecurity, by various means. This was not done overtly, but by allowing glimpses of its weakness. Given the weakness of its economy and the difficulty of life in North Korea, there was no need to risk trying to undermine the North. It would collapse from its own defects.
This was a double inoculation. The North Koreans' ferocity with weapons whose effectiveness might be questionable, but still pose an unquantifiable threat, caused its enemies to tread carefully. Why risk unleashing its ferocity when its weakness would bring it down? Indeed, a constant debate among Western analysts over the North's power versus its weakness combines to paralyze policymakers.
The North Koreans added a third layer to perfect all of this. They portrayed themselves as crazy, working to appear unpredictable, given to extravagant threats and seeming to welcome a war. Sometimes, they reaffirmed they were crazy via steps like sinking South Korean ships for no apparent reason. As in poker, so with the North: You can play against many sorts of players, from those who truly understand the odds to those who are just playing for fun, but never, ever play poker against a nut. He is totally unpredictable, can't be gamed, and if you play with his head you don't know what will happen.
So long as the North Koreans remained ferocious, weak and crazy, the best thing to do was not irritate them too much and not to worry what kind of government they had. But being weak and crazy was the easy part for the North; maintaining its appearance of ferocity was more challenging. Not only did the North Koreans have to keep increasing their ferocity, they had to avoid increasing it so much that it overpowered the deterrent effect of their weakness and craziness.
A Cautious Nuclear Program
Hence, we have North Korea's eternal nuclear program. It never quite produces a weapon, but no one can be sure whether a weapon might be produced. Due to widespread perceptions that the North Koreans are crazy, it is widely believed they might rush to complete their weapon and go to war at the slightest provocation. The result is the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea holding meetings with North Korea to try to persuade it not to do something crazy.
Interestingly, North Korea never does anything significant and dangerous, or at least not dangerous enough to break the pattern. Since the Korean War, North Korea has carefully calculated its actions, timing them to avoid any move that could force a major reaction. We see this caution built into its nuclear program. After more than a decade of very public ferocity, the North Koreans have not come close to a deliverable weapon. But since if you upset them, they just might, the best bet has been to tread lightly and see if you can gently persuade them not to do something insane.
The North's positioning is superb: Minimal risky action sufficient to lend credibility to its ferocity and craziness plus endless rhetorical threats maneuvers North Korea into being a major global threat in the eyes of the great powers. Having won themselves this position, the North Koreans are not about to risk it, even if a 20-something leader is hurling threats.
The China Angle and the Iranian Pupil
There is, however, a somewhat more interesting dimension emerging. Over the years, the United States, Japan and South Korea have looked to the Chinese to intercede and persuade the North Koreans not to do anything rash. This diplomatic pattern has established itself so firmly that we wonder what the actual Chinese role is in all this. China is currently engaged in territorial disputes with U.S. allies in the South and East China seas. Whether anyone would or could go to war over islands in these waters is dubious, but the situation is still worth noting.
The Chinese and the Japanese have been particularly hostile toward one another in recent weeks in terms of rhetoric and moving their ships around. A crisis in North Korea, particularly one in which the North tested a nuclear weapon, would inevitably initiate the diplomatic dance whereby the Americans and Japanese ask the Chinese to intercede with the North Koreans. The Chinese would oblige. This is not a great effort for them, since having detonated a nuclear device, the North isn't interested in doing much more. In fact, Pyongyang will be drawing on the test's proverbial fallout for some time. The Chinese are calling in no chits with the North Koreans, and the Americans and Japanese -- terribly afraid of what the ferocious, weak, crazy North Koreans will do next -- will be grateful to China for defusing the "crisis." And who could be so churlish as to raise issues on trade or minor islands when China has used its power to force North Korea to step down?
It is impossible for us to know what the Chinese are thinking, and we have no overt basis for assuming the Chinese and North Koreans are collaborating, but we do note that China has taken an increasing interest in stabilizing North Korea. For its part, North Korea has tended to stage these crises -- and their subsequent Chinese interventions -- at quite useful times for Beijing.
It should also be noted that other countries have learned the ferocious, weak, crazy maneuver from North Korea. Iran is the best pupil. It has convincingly portrayed itself as ferocious via its nuclear program, endlessly and quite publicly pursuing its program without ever quite succeeding. It is also persistently seen as weak, perpetually facing economic crises and wrathful mobs of iPod-wielding youths. Whether Iran can play the weakness card as skillfully as North Korea remains unclear -- Iran just doesn't have the famines North Korea has.
Additionally, Iran's rhetoric at times can certainly be considered crazy: Tehran has carefully cultivated perceptions that it would wage nuclear war even if this meant the death of all Iranians. Like North Korea, Iran also has managed to retain its form of government and its national sovereignty. Endless predictions of the fall of the Islamic republic to a rising generation have proved false.
I do not mean to appear to be criticizing the "ferocious, weak and crazy" strategy. When you are playing a weak hand, such a strategy can yield demonstrable benefits. It preserves regimes, centers one as a major international player and can wring concessions out of major powers. It can be pushed too far, however, when the fear of ferocity and craziness undermines the solace your opponents find in your weakness.
Diplomacy is the art of nations achieving their ends without resorting to war. It is particularly important for small, isolated nations to survive without going to war. As in many things, the paradox of appearing willing to go to war in spite of all rational calculations can be the foundation for avoiding war. It is a sound strategy, and for North Korea and Iran, for the time being at least, it has worked.
Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.
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