Category Archives: Other Issues

Posts on many other important geopolitical issues.

A clarion call to prepare for cyberwar. But what’s the threat?

Summary:  American professionals writing about national defense are intelligent and well-educated, usually with distinguished careers. But their writings should be datelined “from Oz”. Today we examine another example, about the law of cyberwar.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

CyberCrime

 

Preparing for Cyber War: A Clarion Call

By Michael Schmitt (bio here).
Posted at Just Security, 23 March 2015.

Excerpt:

In every War College in the world, two core principles of military planning are that “hope is not a plan” and “the enemy gets a vote.” Any plan developed without sensitivity to these two maxims is doomed to fail. They apply irrespective of the mode in which the conflict is fought, the nature of the enemy, or the weapons system employed. Unfortunately, some states seem to be disregarding the maxims with respect to cyber operations. They include certain allies and friends around the world, states that the United States will fight alongside during future conflicts. The consequences could prove calamitous, especially in terms of crafting complementary strategies and ensuring interoperability in the battlespace.

… Many states have no position, confidential or public, on when the right of individual or collective self-defense provided for in Article 51 of the UN Charter and customary law applies. Some have yet to maturely grapple with the question of whether international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to cyber operations at all, and for those that have, important questions remain unanswered. These include whether civilian data qualifies as a civilian object enjoying IHL {international humanitarian law} protections, when a cyber operation is an attack in the context of IHL’s assorted targeting rules, and under what circumstances civilians who engage in cyber operations lose their IHL protections from — and during — attacks. Very few states have even considered whether and when a cyber only conflict qualifies as an “armed conflict,” international or non-international, such that IHL applies. This actuality is problematic, since a failure to understand how international law limits or allows cyber operations is a bit like playing football without knowing the rules.

This is sad to read, like so much writing by Americans about geopolitics. It’s not even wrong.

The US (probably with Israel and perhaps other allies) has already made a first strike cyberattack in an undeclared war, on a civilian target (albeit, like so many industrial targets, with dual-use capability). The author ignores this recent history, giving the article an air of unreality — like discussing “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” .

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News good & bad about the fantastic growth of America’s security services.

Summary: We need a sense of proportion when reading the news to avoid being swept away by euphoria on Monday, by despair by Tuesday, and by Friday having forgotten the reasons for both. Today we look at the growth of our police and domestic intelligence services, attempting to put them in perspective with both our history, our present threats, and probable future.  Share your thoughts in the comments.  (2nd of 2 posts today.}

A flag burning

Contents

  1. The Bad News.
  2. The Worse News.
  3. The Worst News.
  4. For More Information

(1)  The Bad News

We’ve expanded the security services at all levels (local, State, Federal), militarizing their equipment and methods. For example there are more armed Federal agents and more Federal SWAT teams, mirroring the expansion at the local and State levels. Plus a massive expansion of their surveillance machinery.  Yet the past 14 years provide almost no evidence that this provided any benefit to America.

Excellent investigative journalism by Trevor Aaronson at The Intercept brings us “The Sting: How the FBI Created a Terrorist“. It’s yet another in a long series of exposes since 9/11 showing how the US security services (no longer “law enforcement agencies”) manufacture threats to keep us frightened. To keep us passive like rabbits as our rights are eroded, and to keep their budgets large and growing.  {For more about this see The US government sponsored jihadist menace.)

Another example is the NY Police Department’s tri-state surveillance of Muslims. Documented over 2 years by the AP; challenged by the ACLU, and (almost inevitably) ruled just fine by the government’s tame judges.

On a larger scale we have the network of over 70 Fusion Centers created by the Department of Homeland Security, providing lavish quarters for multi-agency teams to gather information and produce intelligence. Numerous reports document their near-total ineffectiveness, since there is so little terrorist activity in the US. The latest is a 141-page report by the Senate, which concluded that they have produce mostly “shoddy, untimely and often useless intelligence reports that have done little to keep the U.S. safe.

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“France on Fire”

Summary:  Right-wing extremists in the US warn of jihadists and creeping Sharia, with as  little basis as their warnings of a 5th column during the Cold War). But it is a problem for France, with their larger Islamic populations and lower abilities to assimilate people from foreign cultures. Making a bad situation worse, France has alienated them, treating them as second class citizens fenced into communities ringing their cities. Today we have a status report on the small blaze burning there which might erupt into a wildfire.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Muslims burning French flag

France on Fire

By Mark Lilla
From The New York Review of Books, 5 March 2015.

On January 13, two days after millions in France marched to commemorate those assassinated by Islamist radicals the week before, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls gave a stirring speech in the French National Assembly that was celebrated by socialists and conservatives alike as among the best in recent memory. He was firm and balanced. He first praised the police and expressed the government’s resolve to put in place security measures to win what he was not shy about calling a “war on terrorism, jihadism, and Islamist radicalism.” He then insisted that France was not at war with a religion and must stand firm on its principles of toleration and laicity — that is, the separation of religion and state. He received a standing ovation. Then, to the nation’s surprise, the deputies broke spontaneously and unanimously into the Marseillaise, the first time this had happened since the signing of the armistice ending World War I in 1918.

On the question of security, this unity is likely to last. There is a solid consensus that more resources will have to be devoted to tracking suspected terrorists and monitoring the Internet for signs of trouble. Legislation will be required to give the government sufficient legal leeway to accomplish that, which it will get, since all parties recognize the deficiencies yet none wants to reproduce the American Patriot Act.

So firm has the government of François Hollande been that the leading conservative opposition party, the UMP, and its mercurial leader, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, have found few plausible grounds for dissent. Even his party’s more muscular demands — isolating Islamists in prison, stripping binational jihadists of their French citizenship, limiting the civil rights of nationals who get involved in jihadist movements (as was done with Vichy collaborators after World War II) — are under serious consideration by the government.

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A key to understanding the news: the unexpected rules in our age of wonders.

Summary: We’re in an age of wonders where the news overflows with unexpected events, things not predicted by even our greatest experts. Today we discuss two common responses to this, both ineffective: blindly accepting experts’ explanations that it’s all understood, and throwing away their advice as imperfect. There is a third and better way.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“History doesn’t always repeat itself. Sometimes it just screams, ‘Why don’t you listen to me?’ and lets fly with a big stick.”
— John W. Campbell Jr., Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine (1965).

"Machinery of the Stars" by alexiuss

“Machinery of the Stars” by alexiuss seen at DeviantArt. Posted with the artist’s generous permission.

Learning from the past — the lessons of history — boosts our odds of success in the present. But it’s equally important to see breaks with the past. Instead of flagging these, experts tend to bury them in explanations that conceal their role as valuable markers on the road to a different future. It’s the equivalent of asking about that Detour sign on the road and getting a lecture about the Vienna Convention about Road Signs.

Instead here we attempt to isolate such anomalies, examining them as clues to possible discontinuities in the normal trends of society. It’s an unpopular message. People want explanations, however bogus, to banish fears of uncertainty. It’s one of the primary services experts sell. Unfortunately, our world cannot be understood without understanding its strangeness, especially now — since we have so much of it.

Perhaps the most obvious oddity of our time is in economics. The developed nations appear locked into a slow-growth mode since the 2008 crash (US real GDP growth of ~2.4%), despite massive monetary stimulus on a scale never before seen. Central bank assets in the EU and USA have growth to ~25% of GDP — 64% of GDP in Japan — while interest rates have fallen to zero (below zero in Europe, something considered an absurdity until it happened) and inflation rates declined below central banks’ “floor” targets (despite widespread confident predictions that they would rise).

For a rare admission of uncertainty see “It seems nobody knows what’s going on with the economy,” Andrew McAfee (PhD business, Prof at MIT School of Management), The Financial Times, 26 February 2015. This would be extraordinary if by an economist.

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See Libya burn. We helped set it afire.

Summary:  In 2011 our hawks confidently led us to intervene in Libya, supporting the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi. As was quite obvious even then, we were again supporting Islamic fundamentalists destroying a secular regime, again unleashing chaos from which nothing good can result. Journalist and Middle East specialist Nicolas Pelham walks us through a Libya aflame. Let’s review the results of our past meddling as we begin new interventions in Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria.  {1st of 2 posts today}

“You just have not seen enough people bleed to death.”

— Rebuttal in March 2008 by a US geopolitical expert (known for his knowledge of the Middle East; retired military) to my concerns about our intervention in Libya. With our help, many Libyans have gained this special kind of insight. Now we watch Libya burn:

Libya burning

A fighter of the anti-Islamist Zintan Brigade watches smoke rise after rocket attacks on a fuel tank in Tripoli (August 2014). By Hani Amara/Reuters.

“Libya Against Itself”

By Nicolas Pelham
From The New York Review of Books, 19 February 2015.
Posted with the generous permission of the author and NYRB.

Review of The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole & Brian McQuinn.

Gentle Islamism?

Mahdi al-Herati is sipping his lemon tea in the open-air café beneath the grand Italian porticos of Algiers Square in Tripoli. He seems a little too casual to be either an international jihadi or the elected mayor of the capital city of a country supposedly rescued from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and sliding into civil war. Still, Herati is both, although he prefers to call himself a Libyan revolutionary. Since becoming mayor last year, he tells me, he has invited his counterparts in Dublin and Rome to “twin” with Tripoli under its new rulers, the group called Libya Dawn. He has taken other steps to counter Libya Dawn’s reputation for Islamism. He speaks of his efforts to drum up support from local writers and actors for an arts festival he has planned promoting Tripoli as a cosmopolitan Mediterranean capital of culture.

Herati plans to reopen the movie houses that Qaddafi closed in an earlier revolution. His men protect the national museum, he says, which is crammed full of ancient pagan statues. A new spa for women is opening. And yes, he tells me, his festival will include female as well as male performers and spectators. The capital, he says with only an occasional look over his shoulder and at his two security guards, is safe.

The Libya Dawn coalition Herati belongs to overran the capital after six weeks of bombardment last summer. Many of its leaders are former militiamen from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the jihadi movement that after fighting the unbelievers in alliance with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan turned their guns on Qaddafi and his army. But allied with them are such unlikely bedfellows as merchants from Misrata, a Mediterranean port dependent on trade with Europe, and the Imazighen, or Berber revivalists, whose leaders are either secularists or adherents of a small reformist sect, Ibadiyya, dating back to the first decades of Islam, that opposed the supremacy of the Prophet Muhammad’s Arabian tribe and elected its own leaders.

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Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.

Summary: Today’s post continues our discussion about experts. Here are a few tips to help distinguish reliable and useful experts from those that dominate the news media, plus some warnings.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

“Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly — and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity).”

— Stephen Jay Gould, Full House (1996)

How to pick out the real experts?

How to pick out the real experts?

We can only understand the world — even imperfectly — by seeing it through the eyes of experts. Journalists showcase experts, usually a selected coterie (note how the same few show up repeatedly in a newspapers’ article on each subject). Unfortunately, journalists’ criteria for choosing experts don’t well meet our needs. The catchy sound-bites they favor tend to come from the over-confident and arrogant, especially those that endorse the current narrative. Caveats, uncertainties, and long explanations — these are things seldom found in the news.

How can we find better sources to rely upon? How can we use them most effectively?

Evaluating experts

In my experience, one hallmark of a reliable expert is their recognition of uncertainty. The experts I trust recognize how quickly the world changes, its complexity, the severe limitation on the data we have about it, and the crude state of our theories.  These traits distinguish headline-grabbing experts from economists like Nouriel Roubini, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, physicists like Robert Hersch, climate scientists like Roger Pielke Sr and Judith Curry, and others.

How they grapple with uncertainty makes them more interesting to read, in contrast to the boring black and white certainties that dominate the news.

These experts have another useful characteristic distinguishing them from journalists’ favorites: they admit errors. Half of what we know is wrong, and top experts work to find which of their beliefs lie on each side of that line. From example, Brad DeLong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) runs posts about “smackdowns” of his work, which practice I copied in the Smackdowns page (top menu bar). Krugman often runs columns about his errors.

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Why we have not gone into space, & why we will.

Summary: In the 1960s many bright people, from scientists to science fiction writers, predicted that we would have a large presence in space by now. They correctly predicted we would have the technology. Why do we have nothing but a few small robot explorers? What will eventually draw us into space? This is a follow-up to Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere. {1st of 2 posts today.}

Robert Heinlein predicts the future.

Robert Heinlein wrote “Where To” in 1952, giving predictions about the year 2000. He was bullish about space.

By 2000 AD we could have O’Neil colonies, self-supporting and exporting power to Earth, at both Lagrange-4 and Lagrange-5, transfer stations in orbit about Earth and around Luna, a permanent base on Luna equipped with an electric catapult — and a geriatrics retirement home.

… If you’re willing to settle today for a constant-boost on the close order of magnitude of 1/1000 G we can start the project later this afternoon, as there are several known ways of building constant-boost jobs with that tiny acceleration  — even light-sail ships.

{Total time for a constant boost roundtrip to Mars and to Pluto at two low rates of acceleration:}

  • 1/100 G………………50 days………………50 weeks
  • 1/1000 G……………150 days……………150 weeks

I prefer to talk about light-sail ship (or rather ships that sail in the “Solar wind”) because the above table shows that we have the entire Solar System available to us right now; it is not necessary to wait for the year 2000 and new breakthroughs.

Ten weeks to Mars, a round trip to Pluto in 2 years and 9 months. Ten weeks — it took the Pilgrims in the Mayflower nine weeks and 3 days to cross the Atlantic. … England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal all created worldwide empires with ships that took as long to get anywhere and back as would a 1/1000 G spaceship. … Even the tiniest constant boost turns sailing the Solar System into a money-making commercial venture.

In 1980 he updated that article, writing “By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be building.”

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