Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunk Cost and Lessons Learned?

We had a fairly long discussion here about the "lessons learned" - or, rather, whether lessons that seem obvious in hindsight were, in fact, too difficult for the military boffins of 1914 to discern - in the first catastrophic war of the 20th Century.

Now the NY Times discusses a pointless (and "catastrophic" in the sense of "blood and treasure wasted for no geopolitically valid objective") war of the 21st Century, the mess that the United States has made in the Grave of Empires:

"It’s not as if Mr. Biden is being pressured to stay in Afghanistan with a cogent argument; most analysts freely admit that the United States has no plausible path to victory, that the military isn’t trained to midwife democracy and that the Afghan government is grievously corrupt.

Rather, the national security community cannot bear to display its failure. That’s why many who advocate continuing the war are left grasping for illogical or far-fetched justifications. In a meeting of National Security Council principals, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, reportedly made an emotional plea to stay in Afghanistan, after “all the blood and treasure spent” there."

This is the classic "sunk costs" theory that has been used to justify military shenanigans since the Peloponnesian War, and certainly we've seen modern Great Powers do this repeatedly (I'd argue that the real problem isn't that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was "traumatized" by the disaster in Vietnam but, rather, that the lessons IT taught were not learned, either...)

To me, the big question that the rolling clusterfuck that is the U.S.'s misadventures in the whole "land war in Asia" business is "is there a way for Great Powers - or, indeed, most polities - to make foreign policy decisions that are based on "national interests" that are, indeed, based on the interests of the bulk of the people in the polity"?

It's hard to see too many examples that prove that there is, so my question for the readership is "can you think of an example of a policy (or set of policies) or decision(s) that show that this sort of intelligent geopolitics IS possible?"

Is there (are there?) examples that, say, the "blobs" of various nation-states could look to for a way to see their way through to avoiding the very sort of complete clusterfuck on display when you look at the U.S. foreign policy camorra and it's work in Afghanistan since 2001?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Over the Hegemon

I get that there is a fairly large subset of the U.S. public (and the pundits that natter to it) that refuses to use the word "empire" for the United States.

Imperial is as imperial does, but, fine, whatever.

But I can't think that there would be any disagreement that the U.S. has been the global hegemon for quite some time.

My question for the readership would be, then, is this worth going to Cold War with the PRC over?

I won't even argue with Rubio's contention that the PRC wants to replace the U.S. as the global hegemon.

Would that, however, present "as great a threat as any in history"?

Threat of what?

Would it harm the U.S. public in a material way if the U.S. was no longer the premiere Great Power but, instead, the second behind the PRC?

Keeping in mind that mainland China has a fairly horrible human rights record, would that translate into a worse world in general if the PRC had the ability to conduct whatever they'd call the "Ledeen Doctrine" on regional powers? A worse United States?

I have some ideas, but at this point I'm curious to hear yours; is this an actual thing (or is it just scaremongering)? If it IS a thing, is it really the MOST scary thing ever? And if it it worth hatting up for a new Cold War (with the attendant sorts of small Hot Wars between proxy states and non-state actors of the sort fought between the US and the USSR between 1945 and the 1990s)?

Let's discuss in the comments.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Brusilov and the question of Lessons Learned


My Bride (who is a terrific person for lots of other reasons, too...) was wonderful enough to gift me Tim Dowling's 2008 The Brusilov Offensive and I wasted no time curling up amid the wrapping debris to begin reading. 

In the opening chapter I came across something that intrigued me a bit, and thought I'd throw it out here for the patrons to swill along with their Christmas nog.

On page nine, Dowling recounts a general consensus among what he describes as "...a great many people - most notably the Russian general staff - that technological advances would play a minimal role." in the coming war of 1914. 

He then goes on to say that this "cult of the offensive" dominated most of the tactical to grand tactical thinking of the European powers. The paragraph concludes with a summary of the work of Austro-Hungarian GEN von Hötzendorf, as concluding that "Firepower was certainly beneficial, but its effectiveness was limited..."

I won't argue too hard against this; certainly there was a hell of an influential clique for the attaque à outrance idea in the French Army, and most of the other combatant army planners of WW1 seemed unwilling to abandon the notion that you could figure out some way to outrun a bullet or a shell and gain that elusive decisive victory if you just tried hard enough.

I get that part of that had to have been the lack of actual Great Power combat in the forty-odd years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and 1914.

But, still...

You'd had the Russo-Japanese War just ten years earlier, and that had featured all the things that would kill all that "offensiveness" deader'n a Japanese rifleman hanging on the wire outside Port Arthur; deep entrenchment and obstacles behind machinegun beaten zones and heavy artillery. 

Pretty much every other European power had observers with the combatants, and it sounds like a ton of them reported all the same problems for the attackers facing these defensive measures, it sounds like none of them - particularly the Russians themselves, if Dowling is correct - learned anything from the lessons of others.

That, in turn, makes me wonder; how often in history have we soldiers (or the civilian leadership that directs us...) done that - learned from the experiences either of our predecessors or others - versus how many times we've failed to learn those lessons? It seems off the top of my head that the failures seem more common than the successes, that it seems more likely that military organizations will fail to recognize critical changes in technical or tactical conditions rather than anticipate or adjust to them.

Is that really the case, though? Or am I just being influenced by a sort of military "recency factor" that occurs because those failures tend to be more spectacular than the less catastrophic effects when an organization does react and adjust appropriately?

And is this something that tends to happen to all large military organizations at some point? Is there an example of an army (or navy, or air force...) tending to be uniformly decent at learning from the lessons around them rather than having to learn the hard way?

Christmas Day 2020


It rained when it should have snowed.
When we went to gather holly

the ditches were swimming, we were wet
to the knees, our hands were all jags

and water ran up our sleeves.
There should have been berries

but the sprigs we brought into the house
gleamed like smashed bottle-glass.

Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with the red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,

and I almost forgot what it's like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.

I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,

a black letter bush, a glittering shield-wall,
cutting as holly and ice.

---”Holly”, from "Station Island" by Seamus Heaney.

 (h/t to Lance Mannion, who has been posting these evocative Heaney poems...) 

No matter your place, time, or creed, I hope you are enjoying a time of peace for you and yours. 

 I wish I could have said it as well as Charlie Pierce, but I can't, so I'll just add his Christmas wish to take me out:

 "...may you all have the rest and peace of this mid-winter holiday season. May all your whiskey be mellow and may all your lights shine. And may there always be a candle in the window, calling you home, calling you out of the storm, calling all of us home, together, and home."

Friday, December 18, 2020


 To Infinity...and Beyond!

From the link above:

"Space Force members have an official new name: Guardians, Vice President Mike Pence announced Friday.

"Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Guardians will be defending our nation for generations to come," Pence said during a ceremony to commemorate the Space Force's 1st birthday, coming up on Dec. 20."

 Oh. OH. Now I'm SO sorry I retired before I got to have fun with this. 

It's perfect as it is, but I know I can make it better. I feel the "Acting 1SG Lawes Reads The Morning Formation Announcements" typing itself already.

Update 12/19: And, yep, here it is.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Now what 2?

Interesting article @ regarding 10 things a President Biden could do immediately on foreign policy via executive order or reversing the lying-moron's most egregious executive orders.

1) End the U.S. role in the Saudi-led war on Yemen and restore U.S. humanitarian aid to Yemen.

2) Suspend all U.S. arms sales and transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

3) Rejoin the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) and lift sanctions on Iran.

4) End U.S. threats and sanctions against officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

5) Back President Moon Jae-in's diplomacy for a "permanent peace regime" in Korea.

6) Renew New START with Russia and freeze the U.S.'s trillion-dollar new nuke plan.

7) Lift illegal unilateral U.S. sanctions against other countries.

8) Roll back Trump policies on Cuba and move to normalize relations.

9) Restore pre-2015 rules of engagement to spare civilian lives.

10) Freeze U.S. military spending, and launch a major initiative to reduce it.

I'm good with all ten especially the first.  Regarding the second, I seriously doubt that Biden will suspend arms sales to the KSA and UAE.  

On the third item with Iran and JCPOA: Biden can end the sanctions but Tehran may not want to  rejoin.  Khamenei has been Iran's Supreme Leader for over 30 years and has seen the bipolar foreign policy of Washington first hand.  Why would he bet on a Biden second term?  

Number five I think Biden will do with one exception.   I don't see him ending Joint US/SoKo miltary exercises.  And that will kill the deal for NoKo's Haircut Boy.

And number six on renewing START depends more on Putin than on Biden.  But hopefully he can at least get his SecState (who will that be?) to begin horse trading with Lavrov.  

Item seven and eight, of course.  Sanctions rarely work unless backed up by blockade.  The only successful example I can recall was against apartheid in the RSA.  But those sanctions were endorsed and backed overwhelmingly by much of the world.

For item nine, ROE, we should be adhering to the San Remo Handbook and/or to NATO ROE.

Number ten, I don't think Joe is going to freeze mil spending.  He is definitely going to get major push from the house to reduce it..  But the Rent Boys in the Senate will have some pushback.  They are NOT friends of America.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Now what?

Despite the efforts of roughly 47% of the U.S. voters to ensure four more years of nonstop lies, the Plague, and the New Gilded Age Project it now appears that the executive branch, at least, will revert to the more typical sort of internal and external Great Power politics that has been the bog-standard operational mode for the United States since at least 1945. 

Can we project what this might mean, at least in general terms? 

Keeping in mind the Pathogen in the Room that is the COVID-19 pandemic, where is a Biden Administration likely to go geopolitically? 

Away from Trumpian transactionalism, one suspects. It seems likely that the old ties to NATO and the Asian democracies will be tightened and tightened bonds to autocrats such as Erdogan and Mohammad Bin Salman will be loosened, and in particular the pay-for-play demands of Trumpian foreign policy will be discarded. As Bromwich notes;

"Biden has surrounded himself with the conventional advisers of the Clinton-Obama circle – Jake Sullivan, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Thomas Donilon, Ash Carter, Michèle Flournoy. It is hard to imagine any of them straying far from the Cold War groove of shepherding Nato (sic) against Russia and finding a field for occasional military exercise in a humanitarian war."

The bit about "humanitarian war" elides that Biden himself - and to be fair Bromwich does note this - was against the Libyan misadventure from the start.

I've always been skeptical of the "conservative" insistence on the political influence of the "Responsibility to Protect" crowd on the Left. For a brief moment during the Clinton Nineties the notion that the U.S. could use Bullets for Good was kicked around in public, but the actual effects seem to have been very minimal. 

Despite the UN resolutions of the Oughts Libya remains the only salient example; for all the talk about R2P nothing has been done in Syria or Yemen other than the usual Great Power politics by either the Obama or Trump Administrations. Given that, and Biden's antipathy about the Libya intervention, I don't see any real return to "humanitarian war" in the next four years.

What about the "War on Terror"?

In 2009 Biden advised Obama to cut and run from Afghanistan. I suspect that a Trump-directed wrapup that might have begun this autumn has gone the way of everything else not golf-, television-, and Twitter-related now that the Grifter-in-Chief has no more fucks to give. 

But will 2021 begin with a final shuttering of the neverending saga of "Operation Enduring Freedom"? And what will happen when the inevitable collapse of the Tajik/Uzbek government in Kabul occurs? Will this become a "who lost China" controversy?

The situation in the remainder of the Middle East seems like a perfect opportunity for American disengagement. There is no real reason to take sides in the Sunni-Shia civil war, or to favor the Saudi congeries against the Iranian-led Shia axis. Given its size and demographics Iran is going to be the regional power in Southwest Asia; the U.S. insistence on trying to hold back that tide looks increasingly foolish given the persistent bad-actorism of the Saudis.

And, given the need to reduce the consumption of petroleum if we are to avoid a repetition of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the need for U.S. involvement in hoarding oilfields and the despotisms that surround them seems increasingly louche. Why not take the opportunity of a Biden foreign policy to wave goodbye and wish a pox on both their houses? 

The real open question is can a Biden Administration DO this? Engagement in the Middle East has become engrained in U.S. policy since 1945. It seems to me that it would take a seismic shift to change that, and I don't see Biden as a "seismic" kind of guy. Unfortunately, I see the next four years as a continuation of the preceding 60-odd, with the U.S. unwilling to quit fussing around in the damned region but unable to devise an actual "coherent-with-national-interest" set of goals there, either.

The other potential engagement point is the west Pacific rim.

There the North Koreans have quietly resumed their usual fuckery with atomic weapons and the means to deliver them. I cannot imagine how a Biden Adminstration will change that; the examples of Saddam and Gaddafi are too powerful for the Kims to ignore. There will be no "denuclearization" in Korea.

Can there be some sort of demarche that takes the ceasefire further towards a genuine peace treaty? seems difficult to imagine a way to get around the deep well of paranoia and defensiveness that Kimism has dug north of the 38th Parallel. Perhaps the status quo is the best we can hope for.

Collision with the People's Republic of China, however, seems both more threatening and more solvable, depending on how badly the PRC wants to be the regional power in the South China Sea and how badly the U.S. wants to prevent that and how badly both sides want some sort of liveable solution.

War between the PRC and the US would be...bad. But in a sense the two powers are already in an economic and political cold war, and the Trumpian attempt to combat PRC mercantilist war with its own version stumbled on Tariff Man's misunderstanding of how tariffs actually work. The other option that might have done some good - revising U.S. tax and fiscal policies to punish global corporations for capital flight and offshoring - seem to have been a nonstarter in the New Gilded Age. Unfortunately, I can't see enthusiasm for such policies in the former Senator from Citibank. 

That said, given the habits and mores of the Beijing regime, increased global power for the PRC seems undesirable for anyone outside Beijing. The U.S., however, can't really position itself as the Good Guy here unless it can develop a policy other than "Fuck you, China" and the other regional actors can be motivated to respond in concert with it. 

But the actors themselves are such a disparate and rag-tag bunch, ranging from the relative stability of Australia and Japan to the whatever-the-hell-is-happening in the Philippines and Indonesia, that it seems difficult to imagine some sort of subtly-led-by-the-US alliance gently but firmly resisting PRC imperialism along the Pacific rim, and that's without the weird intraparty scuffling going on between the ROK and Japan.

In short, the west Pacific is a potential tarbaby for the U.S. and the incoming administration that I'm not sure how they either solve or disengage themselves from. To step away and let the PRC bully everyone along the Pacific rim seems fraught. But to confront the PRC seems equally, or more, fraught; I can see many ways it could go wrong, and going right will require a hell of a deft touch that the U.S. has been lacking since well before Trump.

Ending the rule of Know-Nothingism and incipient fascism - not to mention the even nuttier political nonsense like "QAnon" - is an unqualified Good Thing.

But what comes next seems, as always, full of questions and doubts...and the recent election results suggest that the United States is, still...

How that will play out over the next four years I dread to think.