Confusion on Syria

On the 16th of October, I went out on a limb and postulated that perhaps there was a bigger strategy and significant goings-on behind the scenes in the apparent sudden US withdrawal from Northern Syria. As facts have become clearer I believe I was wrong.

First, we learn that the troops leaving Syria that the US initially stated would move to Western Iraq, to be “in the neighborhood”, are not welcomed. US troops relocating from Syria have four weeks to stay in Iraq (Military Times, 23 October). Some news agencies report that Iraq went so far as to prepare official complaints to the UN regarding the movement of US troops into its territory. This demonstrates, pretty clearly, that there was no strategy, or plan and no coordination with Iraq. Perhaps at best there was an assumption but assumptions are bad planning.

If the plan all along was to keep an eye on a resurgence of ISIS from Iraq, one would think that coordination with Iraq would be a key element to work out before announcing a departure from Northern Syria. However, three days ago we read, US military struggles to find a strategy amid sudden policy changes in CENTCOM region (Military Times, 22 October).

Finally, yesterday the US announced, After American troop withdrawal, Trump shifts focus to Syria oil fields (Military Times, 24 October).

Let’s use a first principle to analyze this:

The same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time

We cannot say;

“they fight over there all the time, it is not our fight”

AND

“We need to be close to keep things under control” (Western Iraq) and when that fails, “we need to send troops back to Syria.”

Either it is true that we have no compelling strategic interest in Syria that requires us to risk blood and treasure, OR, we do. In either case, the manner in which we have executed this honestly makes no reasoned sense. We cannot claim that both are at the same time true and false.

Is this all a result of the “Military-Industrial Complex” pushing back to keep the status quo?

Is it a result of what Ann Coulter called in a recent Frontline interview a phenomenon where Trump acts on the last piece of advice he gets and more hawkish voices got to him?

Is this the “3D Chess” that some apologists suggest?

Was this a result of the Intelligence and Military community’s propensity to see the boogeyman behind every rock and pushing to get back in the fight?

Only time will tell.

VP Pence China Speech

Hours after VP Pence spoke today about China, Foreign Policy published a piece that laying out five takeaways.[1]

“Linking Hong Kong and trade talks”

“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” Pence said, before offering an unusual note of support for an official in an administration that has often been reluctant to embrace protest movements. “We are inspired by you,” he added. “Know that you have the prayers and the admiration of millions of Americans.”

Pence

“China is becoming a great cudgel in the culture wars”

“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of the people of China,” Pence said on Thursday. “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”

Pence

“Settling the great ‘decoupling’ debate”

“People sometimes ask whether the Trump administration seeks to ‘decouple’ from China,” Pence said on Thursday. “The answer is a resounding ‘no.’”Rather than isolate Beijing, Pence said the United States seeks “engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world but engagement in a manner consistent with fairness, mutual respect, and the international rules of commerce.”

Pence

“Emphasizing the intellectual property theft debate”

“American enterprises continue to lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year in intellectual property theft.”

Pence

“The political meddling bugaboo”

“Beijing’s economic and strategic actions, its attempts to shape American public opinion, prove out what I said a year ago, and it’s just as true today: China wants a different American president.”

Pence

Obviously none of this is real news, it is really more of a slow reveal. The 2017 National Security Strategy mentioned China 33 times by name, twice as much as Obamas’s last version. [2] Trump’s NSS specifically called out China and identified mounting threats where Obama’s focused on engagement. Trump’s document, in short, called on all the domains of US power to compete and combat China in every area of importance. This was a nuanced but direct shift in US policy. VP Pence’s words today are merely part of a progressively elaborating articulation of this strategy.

Trump’s next NSS document is due out in 2020 and I suspect it will be less nuanced and more direct in relation to China.

If you are like me years ago you may not grasp the importance of the NSS document. I took public policy classes in college where it was discussed but I garnered it was merely another piece of government paperwork, perhaps more political than anything. It was really not until Command and General Staff College that I realized how important the document is. The moment it is released all the machinery of government stops, reads it, and shifts gears to operationalize the strategy. Every word, every sentence, the choice of words, all are important, nuanced and have great meaning. All the nations of the world read it too and plan and react accordingly. There is perhaps no piece of paper of greater importance released by a US president in the modern era. Before the 2017 document hit the streets parties internal and external to the government began lobbying for their version fo what the 2020 document should say.

For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversi ing. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.

2017 US NSS

In early 2018 the DoD released its National Defense Strategy one of the dozens of such documents that follow the release of the NSS and implement the strategy within various domains.

In June 2019, the DoD established a separate office to focus exclusively on China.

“The inward part [is] to help us drive alignment on China across the department as we carry out our National Defense Strategy and its implementation. … A lot of that is to help us internally, with the Joint Staff and the services, to make their respective decisions”

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs [3]

This is the only such office at the DoD level focused exclusively on one country. Trump absolutely meant what he said in his NSS that China is his focus.

Trump’s 2020 budget reflects his focus on China.

To a remarkable degree, the 2020 Pentagon budget proposal is shaped by national security threats that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has summarized in three words: “China, China, China.”

AP [4]

The South China Morning Post reports that the US conducted four separate training operations in August and September focused on China. [5]

  • A sealift exercise designed to move heavy Army divisions
  • Joint land-to-ship missle exercises with Japan
  • US-Asean naval exercise with 10 pacific nations, Four of which – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea.
  • Finally, US Marines conducted airfield- and island-seizure drills in the East and South China seas, near the Philippines and around the Japanese island of Okinawa

I have personally argued for years that we were spending blood and treasure in the wrong places and focusing on the wrong goals strategically. If I were to be a hawk, I am not, I would have been hawkish on China for years. Whether this course is right or wrong, and I believe it is certainly part of what we should refocus on, only time will tell.

_________________

  1. Foreign Policy, BY ELIAS GROLL | OCTOBER 24, 2019, 5:15 PM https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/24/mike-pence-hawkish-china-speech-hong-kong/
  2. US National Security Strategy, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
  3. Defense News 1 OCT 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/10/01/the-pentagon-has-created-a-new-office-solely-focused-on-china-is-that-a-good-idea/
  4. PBS NewsHour Weekend, Nation Mar 16, 2019 1:19 PM EDT https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/new-us-military-budget-focused-on-china-despite-border-talk
  5. South China Morning Post, Published: 6:00pm, 21 Sep, 2019 https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3029774/growing-rivalry-between-china-and-us-plays-out-military-war

China: The Rising Dragon

Herein I will argue points that many know as facts but seldom are the implications of these facts, taken together holistically, discussed for their wider meaning. China is a great power, historically and currently, and it is increasing in economic, diplomatic and military strength at a rapid pace. China benefits from a centralized system of governance that seems to be exercising realpolitik on the global stage in a masterful way. The country benefits from a homogeneous population, and in the case where homogeneity does not exists, such as the Uyghurs, China is currently undertaking drastic and brutal steps to stamp out nonconformity. Furthermore, China leads the world in the application of the use of technology to suppress dissent and disagreement, both within its borders and abroad.

These facts combine to make China a deadly enemy to the West, western culture and the idea of liberal democracy. The threat does not manifest directly through military action, the application of economic and soft-power is proving perfectly suited to the expansionary goals at the moment. If and when direct military conflict becomes a reality with the West it will simply be too late for western democracies to oppose it.

Let me state upfront I am certainly not an advocate of the methods and style of China. I state that their advantage of a centralized government and extensive social controls is such only because the West has failed to actually adhere to the principles of good governance and culture that would otherwise decide this growing conflict long before it began. The West lost its way long ago. We have toyed with progressivism and socialism but have not perfected it the way China has, thus we have a defective hybrid system – not quite the City on the Hill and not quite a socialist dystopia. We have dismissed the homogeneity of culture enforced by the Chinese in favor of a sort of diversity that creates pockets of dissent and disagreement at all levels – we simply cannot agree enough to compete with a monolith. In essence, all of the great ideas of Western Civilization regarding good governance based upon first principles have been abandoned for an ineffective hybrid system.

Chinese history begins perhaps around 2070 BC. This is an important fact from an analysis of current geopolitics because that long history informs and shapes the narrative of the Chinese people, as crafted by the Chinese government. It provides context, lessons, pride and patience. Throughout the history of China there have been ebbs and flows in terms of power, in the last century great embarrassment; in prior centuries moments of great invention in the arts and sciences. This feeds a narrative that builds a sense of expectation. The Chinese know they are a great people with great potential and the government makes full use of this.

Lessons from the Ming Dynasty and the Treasure Fleet

Between 1405 and 1433 China dispatched seven great treasure fleets to ports throughout the Indian Ocean. This merchant navy was unrivaled in the world, no other nation could conceive of building ships of the size and complexity contained within these seven fleets. The largest of these ships had a displacement of about 1/2 of a modern US aircraft carrier. The mission of these fleets was essentially shock and awe, they did not need to go get trade, anyone and everyone came to China to trade. This was a statement of great power. In 1433 the Ming Dynasty suddenly stopped sending the fleets and either burned the ships or allowed them to rot in harbor.

China then vastly expanded the Great Wall, passed laws to forbid further foreign trade via the sea and entered an internal period for almost 500 years. During this period China culturally became the China we recognize, Han, and it was still powerful. However, relative to the West, that power, in terms of technology wained. By the late 1800’s European powers were threatening China on the mainland. By the 1900’s the Chinese were being humiliated at home.

Two lessons derive from this.

First, from a Chinese perspective, the notion that soft-power must be pushed forward, throughout the world is important. No matter how many internal resources, no matter what program of internal improvements China must control or influence centers of power else it will be dominated again.

Perhaps a lesson Americans should take from this is similar. Building walls and disengaging will have long term consequences. Perhaps America needs a long period like the Chinese Qing Dynasty to get culture right. These are questions for another discussion. However, Chinese retraction in 1433 certainly had long-term, positive and negative consequences for the Chinese. (Building walls may be important to maintain order and respect the rule of law, the lesson to be taken is perhaps not against physical walls but rather against isolationism.)

The Way Ahead

I do not intend to overburden my arguments with the inclusion of multiple data points related to the Chinese economy. I would refer you to this Congressional Research Service report from Morch 2019. I would note that the numbers are grim but the assessment less grim, although not bright. The report writers see challenges for China in terms of local debt, I predict the centralized system and expanding economy will easily overcome these.

Areas of Chinese Advantage

The Road and Belt Initiative will continue to give China inroads and access to trade and resources throughout central Asia.

BRICs, the accumulation of physical gold and US dollars will threaten the current economic system and set the stage for a new one.

Industrial espionage, state-sponsored, will close the remaining technological gaps.

Parity and potential advantages in the Cyber domain will threaten to destabilize economies and societies.

Growing Chinese power and influence will – without a doubt – alter the nature of free speech, rights and the flow of information. This is already occurring and will only increase. China will rule, by default, areas of our life without ever firing a shot.

Lastly, the Chinese seem to have mastered two concepts that bode poorly for the ordinary man; state-supported capitalism and a strong central government. They have taken what was good of the Soviet Union and dispensed with the bad and taken from the West the engine that makes an economy grow while avoiding any of the political philosophies that might protect the citizen. If their model works, if their system wins, 1984 is conceivably within the future of mankind.

Addendum (other points to consider):

Some experts assess current Chinese cyber capabilities as lagging compared to the West and the US, I suspect this is true only by a slight margin. (read “What Are China’s Cyber Capabilities and Intentions?” for an overview of the standard assessment.)

Two considerations are particularly worrying.

First, China’s stated strategic goals coupled with a marshaling of state resources to achieve that goal will close the current gap quickly.

Second, and more worrying. China will likely develop quantum computing first. Quantum computing will change everything. The playing field that exists prior to the first quantum computer going online will simply not matter. The first nation to develop this technology wins. Developing one second or third may actually not matter so much – as soon as a quantum computer comes online all secrets, industrial, military and others are vulnerable.

Syria, The Kurds and Russia

Over the course of my Army career, I had numerous opportunities to live with, train, fight beside and become friends with Kurds.  I am not unlike many others that had the same experiences over the last two decades in that my interactions with the Kurds left me with a sense of respect, admiration and affection for them. 

Naturally, I felt an initial sense of bewilderment and some anger last week at what seemed a sudden US policy shift relative to the Kurds.  We have had many foreign partners and extra-national compatriots over the years but in my and many other’s experiences, none match the overall worthiness and decency of the Kurds.  Also, considering this is not the first, but rather the third, major policy betrayal of the Kurds by the US in the last 30 years this all just felt wrong.  I made real friends among Kurdish soldiers, this all touched me on a personal level.

However, once I put emotions aside and began to analyze what has occurred critically, I have come to suspect that something much bigger has occurred.  The narrative spun by “national security experts” and parroted by hyperbolic media is an inaccurate picture of these events because none of these folks seems to be taking into account actual facts.

Facts

Despite the Kurds being one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a country of their own it has never been a US policy tenet to support the formation of such – our partnership with the Kurds in Syria was always within the context of a restored Syria.

The “moderate” elements so often touted by liberal pundits and neoconic warhawks, were never really that moderate.  Many of those elements are now threatening genocide on the Kurds in support of Turkey (and by extension Saudi Arabia).  The Kurds were and are the only moderates in Syria.  

Turkey itself has a pretty dismal history.  There is, of course, the Armenian genocide in the early 20th Century, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and growing repression of the rule of law and political dissent inside the regime.  The failed 2016 coup was perhaps the last best effort to set Turkey on a different path, but the resulting purge removed all remaining moderate and sane voices.  Their policies and action since have proven they are no ally and not within the Western sphere of thought and action.

By any objective measure, Bashar al-Assad was and is not that bad, relatively speaking, when compared to other outcomes in the Middle East.  The Muslim world works best, politically, with a strong government that keeps the passions of the people in check.  Assad was no better or worse than any other leader in the region in this regard.  In fact, pre-civil war Syria respected the rights of ethnic and religious minorities far better than many countries in the region – Turkey and Saudi Arabia as prime examples of “allies” that have much worse records in that regard. By international law and custom, Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria – objectively it was never correct to interject in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation without their invitation.

Many in the media bemoan the fact that a US disengagement from Syria empowers Russia and Iran.  The standard narrative conflates the interest of those two countries into an “axis of evil” but that is not a correct view.  Their interest have been conjoined only insofar as the recent geopolitical environment has made them bedfellows.  The other part of this flawed narrative is that Russia is an enemy to be feared which, when evaluated based upon real facts is ridiculous.  They are at worst a protagonist and adversary in terms of some strategic goals but Russia is a glass cannon, a shade of its former self.  The true peer competitive enemy of the US is China – focus on Russia “getting a small win” distracts from the real threat.

Assad is Russia’s ally.  Syria has invited Russia into Syria to assist with its internal conflict.  This complies with international law.  The US was never invited and short of declaring war in Syria, we were always wrong for being there.

Considering those facts, recent events make more sense.  Russia is not a threat to us.  The US was expending blood and treasure in a place, not in our strategic interest.  Syria is within Russia’s strategic interest and a stable Syria would control ISIS. 

Conclusion

Why would a rational person not see this as an acceptable outcome?

Consider this.  Less than 24 hours after the “infamous” tweet last Thursday the Kurds struck a deal with the Syria Army.  Is it reasonable to assume that enemies suddenly become allies following a tweet?  Is it more reasonable to assume a lot more went on behind the scenes prior to the announcement via tweet that facilitated this arrangement?  It is highly unlikely the US would announce that we brokered a deal like that but looking at the situation rationally it seems the most likely possibility.  If so, we really did not abandon the Kurds as is so readily portrayed in the media. 

Such an outcome is essentially a strategic win for the US.  We get out of Syria, the Syrian government can reestablish control of its territory and return to the status quo that existed prior to the civil war (and no matter what political grievances some people had then the situation was much better than the last several years, that is inarguable).  Russia bears the responsibility to see all this through, via financial and military support.  We can retract and refocus on our true threats in the world – China.

The only fly in the ointment is Turkey and their invasion of Syria.     

The Day I Became Involved in Local Politics

Tip O’Neil famously said, all politics are local. I have spent much of my life being interested in national and international politics and geopolitics but have never paid much attention to local events.

Very recently I realized that my little city of North Augusta, SC is in something of the order of 120 million dollars in debt. Apparently approximately 70 million of that on account of the construction of SRP Park.

My wife and I bought a home here in 2016, I was deployed, we actually purchased the home while I was on leave. We knew she had a good job at the University and this is where I should retire. I could not imagine living in the debacle that is Richmond County and Columbia County was too far. Besides, I was born and bred in South Carolina, I am a proud son of the State. North Augusta seemed perfect.

I recall in an off-hand conversation my wife and I discussing how the ballpark had been funded. I assumed that surely there must have been a referendum for such an expenditure. Surely, right? How could a small town council possibly spend so much of their neighbor’s money without asking them? I supposed my assumption was correct and moved on with life, happily ignorant.

In the last couple of years my wife has occasionally mentioned to me something like, “man, there is some drama going on at North Augusta 20 20”. I would generally mumble in acknowledgement and continue on with what I was doing. I long ago stopped paying much attention to Facebook. I have seen too many people with drama there. I never stopped to wonder if there was really fire associated with the smoke she was seeing.

Apparently, there has been a real fire raging beneath the smoke of Facebook drama. Contentiousness has been the norm in council chambers and outside for some time it seems. However, I do not know all the facts or personalities or details involved up to this point.

I know one thing for certain. My original assumption concerning the state of good governance in my little city were all wrong. Based upon one fact alone I am prepared to say something is amiss and things must change.

The council saddled the citizens of the city with enormous debt, almost $70 million, without a referendum. Nobody elects part-time city officials to make decisions of that magnitude – it is plain and simple irresponsible, unconscionable and immoral. It is theft of property no matter how you state it. In local government one just generally assumes that everyone knows that the right thing to do when such a large matter is in question is to allow the people to decide – after all it is their money.

image via Ken Powell

Based upon this one simple fact, this one simple callous immoral act of hubris I have become interested in and involved in local politics.

Last night I contacted the Constitution Party of North Augusta and asked them to place a sign in my front yard. I offered to help in any way possible and next week I will break bread with one of their officers to discuss what that means and figure out where I can help.

The list of absurdities could go on – perhaps the passage this past Monday of an ordinance allowing open air consumption of alcohol in Riverside Village (mind you there are what two bars there at present). That seems a rather silly thing to be worried about considering almost none of the magnificent storefronts, shops and entertainment that was promised in the artist depictions have actually materialized. When I recently visited the area I wondered where there might actually be space for any of the grand things we were promised. The hotel is not grand and the ball park is archetecturally out of place.

Then perhaps one could point to the utterly brilliant idea to install parking meters down there. You people build a field of dreams with our money, sold a bill of goods with wonderful pictures and delivered a much less grandiose reality with already frustrating and limited parking and now you want to discourage further patronage with parking meters. Simply brilliant. These folks must go.

Finally, we read our city administration is coordinating with Augusta and Georgia to construct a pedestrian/bike path on a future 13th Street bridge. I suppose all North Augusta needs is folks walking over from Broad Street in Augusta to ask me money when the wife and I go out to eat. This is a large reason I do not often go to Broad Street! Again – brilliant.

North Augusta is not Augusta – that place elects fools and those fools mismanage funds and the potential of the city and county. We do not need to be like Augusta. We should progress, but keep the culture and nature of our city intact. We also should expect elected officials that know the moral limits of the power vested in the positions they hold. Placing every resident of the city in debt without the common decency to ask – that is wrong. This is what got me interested and involved in local politics.

Not Small Differences

I joined the Army (the Army Reserve actually) during my junior year of high-school.  I had to gain the permission of my parents and I looked a little silly returning my senior year with my basic training haircut.  This began a journey that ended this year in an active duty retirement and many exciting and fulfilling years in between.   I knew from the time I was a small child that I wanted a career in the military but in 1983 a speech by Ronald Reagan gave me cause to join as soon as I turned 17 two years later.

On the night of this “blue wave” election night I am reminded of that Evil Empire speech and what it meant to me then and what it should mean to our nation.  Watch it if you have forgotten Reagan’s words concerning Godless communism – the very sort on the ballot tonight.

In my adult life, I cannot recall a single good president, not one since Reagan.   Some were clowns, others disgusting fools, or slick snake oil salesmen but none have been statesmen and none have led us toward the ideal of traditional Americanism in the way Reagan did.

Congress and the Senate have certainly been no better, in point of fact much worse.  In terms of general trends, we have moved much closer to socialism and away from the traditional American values of family, self-reliance, work and Christianity.  Democrats, particularly the loudest of them, the ones that like to shout down anyone that disagrees with them, may not admit they have been winning but the facts are fairly self-evident to support this truth. Regulation has increased in the aggregate, personal freedom has decreased., the size of government has increased and traditional Christian values have been eradicated from public life – communism, err progressivism,  has been winning.

In our system, we generally perceive mid-term elections as a way to alleviate buyer’s regret from the proceeding presidential election.  This is generally why the party of sitting presidents lose control of the House of Representatives during mid-term elections.

To utilize a millennial term, this year feels different.

Donald Trump is different.  He is the physical manifestation of a lot of frustration that has built up in conservative-minded Americans since 1988.   Bush I was a company man.  Bush II was overwhelmed and unprepared for the circumstances he found himself in – he did more damage than good.   Conservatives have suffered for years under inept Republican presidents and two Democrats that did irreparable damage to the nation.   A man, Trump,  that spoke in ways that are common and to the point was the result.

Many of the Democratic offerings in this election are the left equivalent of a Donald Trump.  If Democrats believe Trump to be despicable they have responded by selecting outright socialist and proto-communist.  Spin it as you will, call it progressive, “compassionate” open-minded or any other euphemism many of these folks believe in tenets of Marxism.

We have perhaps crossed the Rubicon of civility, respect and cooperation and it is likely undeniable that there is a great gulf in what the far right and far left believe America is supposed to be.

If a mid-term election is supposed to be a safety-valve, something that allows the electorate to blow off steam, how does this continue to work when the poles are so far separated.   The ideologies and philosophy that now separates us are not small differences.

Will the most radical of the left be satiated with a blue wave, what about a blue ripple?   What happens if there is no blue wave at all and outright radical socialist like Abrams and Gillum lose, what with the most radicalized of the left do?   What if the Democrats fail to even gain the House?  Will the most radical of the left stop protesting in the streets of the Pacific Northwest and go get jobs like the rest of us or will the blue wave morph into something else?

Only time will tell.