Tag Archives: United States

Asymmetrical rules

Back in September I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order.’ In this I pointed out that both Russia and the West claimed to be in favour of a ‘rules-based order’ and that each accused the other of breaking that order. The problem, I conjectured, derives from differing understanding of what the rules are and how they should be applied. Russia believes in a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities. The rules apply equally to all of them, regardless of who they are or what they do. States may only take action against other states with the permission of a superior court, in other words the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia doesn’t 100% abide by the rules of its own model, but its preferred option remains one of legal symmetry – the same rules apply to all.

By contrast, human rights reasoning has pushed the West in an opposite direction, towards a preference for legal asymmetry. In this model, the just and the unjust, those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights, are not legally or morally equal. As I wrote in my paper, if a policeman shoots at a criminal, the criminal doesn’t then enjoy a right of self-defence and so a right to shoot at the policeman. This is because one is engaged in a just act, and the other in an unjust act. Taken to the level of international affairs, a state which is not, in the words of Canadian scholar Brian Orend, ‘minimally just’, has no right of self-defence; but a just state has a right to take action against it. Good states in this model gain rights; bad states lose them. Asymmetry is correct, and there is nothing wrong with double standards.

Having put forward this thesis in my paper, I was very interested, therefore, to see somebody apparently confirm it in today’s New York Times. In an article entitled ‘Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it, too’, Scott Shane recounts multiple incidents in which the United States has meddled in other countries’ electoral processes and cites intelligence officials as confirming that this has happened and continues to happen. In a recent example, for instance, the USA attempted (but failed) to ensure Hamid Karzai’s defeat in the 2009 election in Afghanistan. Shane quotes former CIA director Robert Gates as calling this ‘our clumsy and failed putsch.’

What is significant about this article, though, is the unrepentant tone of those interviewed. Former CIA officer Steven L. Hall, for instance, tells Shane that the United States has ‘absolutely’ interfered in other countries’ elections and ‘I hope we keep doing it.’ And then we get onto the key point. Shane writes:

Both Mr Hall and [intelligence scholar Loch] Johnson argued [that] Russia and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictatorships, or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said. Equating the two, Mr Hall says, ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns – the motivation matters.’

In the same vein, Shane cites Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Initiative as saying, ‘It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s comparing somebody who delivers lifesaving medicine to somebody who brings deadly poison.’

Putting aside the rather questionable assertion that American interventions in other countries’ affairs are ‘generally’ in support of ‘democracy’, we see here a clear example of asymmetrical thinking. In American eyes the same rules do not apply to the United States and Russia, because they are morally different. The American idea of a rules-based order is one in which the ‘good guys’ are subject to different rules to the ‘bad guys’.

One can understand the logic here. Why should the rules be written to put good and evil on an equal footing? Should they not be written to favour the former over the latter? The problem, however, is that we have no external body (barring the UN Security Council) able to determine which states are just, and so allowed to interfere in the affairs of others, and those which are unjust, and not allowed to do so (and indeed not even allowed to defend themselves). Asymmetrical rules permit anybody and everybody to declare themselves ‘just’ and their opponents ‘unjust’, and so to abrogate extra rights for themselves while denying even the most basic rights to others. Since in reality only the powerful will be able to act on this, such asymmetrical rules serve merely to enhance the power of those who already have it (which is, of course, probably why the most powerful states in the world favour them). Meanwhile, those who are at the receiving end of this logic can hardly be expected to accept it; they are likely to resist. Such an order will never be universally accepted, and so cannot be the basis for a stable international system.

Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it. But the chosen alternative is not obviously any better.

It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously. Yet it is clear that beneath present disputes lies a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order.’ Resolving it is perhaps one of the key philosophical tasks of our time.

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Russia as enemy

I have remarked on more than one occasion that Western perceptions of the Russian ‘threat’ have historically owed little to the real scale (or even existence) of that threat. Instead they have tended to be products of internal political debates within the West, with depictions of Russia as good or evil serving as tools to advance certain political agendas. Leo Strauss argued that underneath the surface meaning of any work of philosophy there is also a hidden meaning, discernible only by a select few. One could say much the same about analyses of Russia: there’s the surface story – Russian aggression, Russian disinformation, Russian collusion, and so on – but there’s also something going on under the surface which constitutes the true purpose of the analysis in question.

Quite why Russia is so often used to serve this purpose, rather than some other country, is hard to discern. I suspect that it’s because Russia is uniquely positioned both inside and outside of the West, making it a suitable ‘other’ while also being clearly connected to Western concerns in a way that a truly alien ‘other’, such as China, could not be. Regardless of the reason, depictions of Russia shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. There’s a hidden reason why the writer is doing what he or she is doing which he is she isn’t telling you. (Which, if true, raises a whole host of questions: what’s my hidden purpose? And is there a hidden purpose to saying that there’s a hidden purpose? But for now we will put these to one side.)

What’s rare is for anybody to come straight out and admit it, which is what makes a recent article in The Washington Monthly by ‘contributing writer’ John Stoehr so remarkable. Stoehr takes the line that the Democratic Party in the United States has been far too soft in its struggles with its Republican opponents. The Democrats have tried to find common ground, and reach agreement, whereas the Republicans have regarded the Democrats as their enemies and so have waged relentless war against them. As a result, the Democrats have been trounced. To regain power, they need to start playing hardball too.

This leads Stoehr to a problem:

How can Democrats do this without abandoning what makes them a liberal party: its values, its pluralism, its privileging of liberty and justice for all, its historic goal of creating a more perfect union? How can they ask voters to vote Democrat by doing what the Republicans do?

Fortunately, Stoehr has worked out what to do about this. He writes:

These are difficult questions, but I think the Trump presidency offers a possible answer. The Democrats should do everything they can to tie the Republicans to something most sane people would agree, even if they are hopelessly polarized, is an indisputable threat to the United States—Russia.

So, here we have it. The Russian threat serves as a tool for the Democratic Party to win political points in its domestic battles with the Republicans. Stoehr continues:

I think Russia is a solution to political polarization. The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country. Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. … In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans. Do they stand with America or do they stand with Russia?

Stoehr cites NBC analyst John Heilemann asking Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: ‘Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?’ This is quite an outrageous suggestion, for which there is, it has to be said, absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Stoehr is clear, however, that it’s the sort of smear which the Democrats ought to be spreading at every opportunity. He writes:

Murphy didn’t take the bait, which suggests to me that the Democrats are not ready to accuse the Republican Party of treasonous behavior. Perhaps it’s prudent to bide their time, to wait for the proper context. What I do know is that that context is rapidly taking shape. Pretty soon, it won’t sound extraordinary to wonder if the highest-ranking government officials have been comprised. It won’t sound outlandish to accuse the Republicans of abetting a foreign enemy. It will sound reasonable. At that point, real change can happen.

As a political strategy, I think this is dumb. If the Democrats want to take the gloves off in their fight against the Republicans, Trump has given them more than enough ammunition to do so: cuts in Medicaid, immigration policy, massive increases in defence spending, foreign policy mistakes, and so on. Instead, Stoehr wants the Democrats to double down on the Russian issue – an issue which 90% of Americans probably don’t care very much about. It’s bizarre to say the least. Nonetheless, Stoehr’s article lays bare the hidden purpose behind so many Russia-related stories. They’re a tool in an internal political struggle. They have very little to do with Russia itself.

My thoughts on that memo

So, the long anticipated ‘memo’ detailing how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to endorse secret surveillance of one-time, very marginal, Trump foreign affairs advisor Carter Page, has been released. The key allegations are:

  • The DOJ and FBI based their application to the court on the so-called ‘dossier’ of salacious allegations about Trump assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
  • The dossier was commissioned by the Trump’s opponents in the Democratic party, and the person who put it together, Steele, admitted to being ‘passionate’ about preventing Trump being elected.
  • The DOJ and FBI failed to tell the court about the political motivations of those who commissioned and wrote the dossier.
  • The DOJ and FBI provided evidence which they said corroborated the dossier, but that evidence in fact also came from Steele – so, it wasn’t corroborating evidence at all.
  • Steele was in contact with the DOJ through a senior official, Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife worked for the company which commissioned Steele and which was engaged in the ‘cultivation of opposition research on Trump’.
  • The FBI eventually assessed the Steele dossier as ‘only minimally corroborated’.

What should we make of all this?

First, complaints by Democratic politicians and the FBI that releasing the memo somehow threatens national security have been shown to be entirely wrong. There is nothing in this which does anything other than threaten the reputation of the DOJ and FBI and indicate that the Trump collusion story originates in a decidedly dubious document.

Second, Republican hopes that this would be the big thing that brought the Russia investigation to an end have not been justified. There’s nothing here which is so enormously outrageous and so totally discredits the investigation that Trump will be able to stop it.

Third, the justification for spying on Page provided to the court by the DOJ and FBI appears to be the result of sloppy intelligence work. The fourth point above is a clear example of what is called ‘circular reporting’ – i.e. corroborating information by citing evidence which in fact comes from the same source as the supposed information.

Fourth, the credence given to the dossier was also poor intelligence work. A lot of the claims in it were quite extraordinary and in any case implied that Steele, a man who hadn’t even been to Russia for 20 years, somehow had access to the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. A greater degree of scepticism was warranted. The fact that such scepticism was lacking suggests either a) once again, sloppiness, or b) bias. Neither is good, though the first is probably preferable since the latter would imply that a decision to spy on what appears to be an entirely innocent American citizen was founded on political motives.

Fifth, the connections between Ohr, his wife, Steele, and opposition research suggest a rather too cozy relationship between DOJ and those seeking to undermine Trump. At the very least, there was what could be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Sixth, in the end I don’t think that any of the above will matter. Peddlers of the collusion story will no doubt shake this off, pointing out that the memo is the work of Republican politicians and claiming that it is therefore biased and misleading. They will say that it leaves out important information, such as other reasons why the court may have given permission to spy on Page (I’m guessing that the so-called ‘Australian connection’ will be raised in this regard – i.e. information supposedly provided  by Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat, even though as the memo says, there was no connection between Page and Papadopoulos)

Given all that, I imagine that i) those believing that the Trump collusion story is made-up nonsense, and the President is a victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and their allies in the ‘deep state’ will feel vindicated; while ii) supporters of the collusion theory will see the release as further evidence that Republicans are just trying to divert attention because they have something to hide. The primary result, therefore, will simply be a hardening of positions on both sides and an accentuation of the already sharp divisions in American politics. In short, the show will go on.

Basic scientific method

As, I am sure, all of you know, a proper scientific experiment will have a ‘control group’. Say I have a new cancer drug. I can’t tell if it’s actually any good just by testing it. I need something else to compare it to. It’s only by means of the comparison that my results have any meaning. To see if the ‘independent variable’ is of any significance, you have to consider other possible factors which might be affecting the result. In short, you can’t treat a single phenomenon in isolation from everything else.

Bear this in mind, as we’ll come back to it later. But for now, let’s switch track and turn to the matter of ‘Russian interference’ in US politics. What have we learnt to date?

What we’ve learnt is that some ‘Russia-linked accounts’ posted messages about US politics, and paid for advertisements related to US politics, on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Some of these messages were anti-Clinton and pro-Trump (along the lines of ‘a vote for Hillary is a vote for Satan’), but some were anti-Trump, and some were about completely different things altogether (Black Lives Matter and the like). For a sample, take a look here.

We’ve also learnt that an account is deemed ‘Russia-linked’ if it features even one of the following criteria: it was created in Russia; registered via a Russian phone carrier or email account; uses Cyrillic characters; the user regularly uses the Russian language; and the user has logged in from any  Russian IP address, even once. I’ve logged in to this site in Russia, so according to this definition you are reading a ‘Russia-linked’ blog. That means that if I make any comments about US politics, they will be added to the list of evidence of ‘interference’ by the Russian government.

Clearly, this is all a bit silly. But, let’s not worry about that for the moment. Let’s accept that some of the ‘Russia-linked accounts’ are indeed Russian, though we can’t tell that any of them are actually linked to the Russian government, and let’s accept that Russians are posting things about US politics. Does that amount to ‘interference’? And does it show that Russians are particularly noteworthy interferers, so noteworthy as to justify a vast witch-hunt?

Now, this is where the matter of comparison comes into play. Russians are posting stuff about US politics. But what about everybody else? Let’s face it, Russians are hardly likely to be the only ones. US politics interests people just about everywhere, and some of them no doubt have some strong views on it and may even have generated some commentary or memes or something else which they’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re going to say that ‘Russian interference’ is especially prominent and dangerous, you need something to compare it to. For instance, you might compare it to the complete total of all social media users. Are Russians posting substantially more about US politics than social media users as a whole? Alternatively, you could look at individual countries. What about Canada-linked users; Britain-linked users; French-linked users; Mexican-linked users; whatever? Have any of them posted stuff about US politics, bought political advertisements, and the like? And if so, do they do it more or less than Russia-linked users, in proportion to their numbers.

This matters, because if you were to do such a comparison and discover that, say, Canadian users were generating very similar stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and doing just as much compared to their overall numbers, then you’d have to start investigating ‘Canadian interference’. Or if you found the same with Brits, Germans, French, Mexicans, Venezuelans, whatever, you’d have to investigate British, German, French, Mexican, Venezuelan, etc interference too. And then, it would become obvious that Russian interference’ isn’t particularly abnormal.

Maybe it is. Maybe, ‘Russia-linked accounts’ have generated far more of the sort of stuff under investigation than accounts linked to other countries. But then again, maybe not. To date, I haven’t read anything which suggests that anybody has carried out the research to show which is the case. If that is true (and please show me if I’m missing something), then all the findings about Russian interference are utterly meaningless, as they lack any comparison. This is basic scientific method. Am I the only person to have thought of this?

Not so intelligent

As the old saying goes, ‘Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms’. Civilian intelligence often isn’t very intelligent either. Phillip Knightley, who spent decades investigating the world of espionage, concluded that the record of the CIA was ‘dismal’. Despite the aura surrounding its name, the KGB wasn’t much better, said Knightley, quoting KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who noted that, ‘When people say that Soviet intelligence penetrated the higher echelons of western government, I know that is not true.’ There’s no recorded example of the CIA having recruited anybody in the higher echelons of the Soviet government either. Knightley commented also that,

A conference on intelligence history held in Germany in 1994 was attended by a panel of spymasters from east and west. I challenged them to name a single important historical event in peacetime in which intelligence had played a decisive role. No one could do so.

In short, the historical record suggests that intelligence services don’t have actually have spies high up in the institutions of their most important targets; their knowledge of what is going inside the minds of foreign leaders is very limited and often quite wrong; and they are not nearly as all-knowing as many people imagine.

If we are to believe the Washington Post, however, the CIA has penetrated into the inner sanctum of the Kremlin. According to the newspaper’s latest revelations:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides. Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race. But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

Tim Weiner’s definitive 2008 history of the CIA, entitled Legacy of Ashes, revealed what a New York Times review called a ‘litany of failure’ from the agency’s beginnings right up to the present day. Given its past, how many of you, dear readers, really believe that the CIA has a source ‘deep inside the Russian government’ capable of producing such information?

But let’s imagine that maybe it does. If so, this would be an agent of staggering importance, the most highly placed source the CIA has ever had, so important indeed that, according to the Washington Post, only four people are allowed to read what he (or she) produces. Yet one of these four people, or one of what must be an equally small group within the CIA who know about the source (for who else could it be?) has now put his (or her) safety in jeopardy by revealing his (or her) existence to the Washington Post. And the Washington Post has compounded this crime by revealing the source’s existence to the entire world. Bear in mind that, as far as we know, the CIA has never had an agent ‘deep inside the Russian (or Soviet) government’. This person is the star recruit of star recruits. And now their cover has been blown.

One might imagine, then, that the Washington Post story would be causing squeals of outrage and calls for an immediate investigation into what is surely the mother of breaches of security. Yet oddly enough that isn’t what seems to be happening. The distinct lack of concern about the disclosure of a source allegedly so stunningly valuable that their information is restricted to just four people, is extraordinary. There can be only two explanations:

  1. People in Washington don’t give a damn about protecting the CIA’s sources, no matter how valuable they are, and are quite happy to throw them under the bus if it gives them some political advantage. That includes both the people who leak such stories to the press, the press itself, and also the wider political establishment, which doesn’t seem to be too upset by such stuff. That in turn would suggest that these people are utterly untrustworthy, so we should take what they say with the largest pinch of salt; or
  2. People aren’t concerned by the ‘leak’ for the simple reason that the source ‘deep in the Russian government’ doesn’t actually exist. The story is straightforward BS, pure and simple.

Personally, I tend toward option 2.

UPDATE: Somebody has pointed out to me an option 3: nobody is concerned about blowing the source’s cover because it has already been blown. The source, according to this version, is the three Russian cyber experts arrested in Moscow in January. I confess that this isn’t what I understood the Washington Post meant by sources ‘deep in the Russian government’ as these people weren’t ‘in the government’ but in the case of two of them, the FSB (which, although an institution of the state, isn’t part of the ‘government’). (The third arrestee actually worked for a private company – Kaspersky.) I concede that this option is in theory possible (although any link between the arrestees and alleged election interference is speculation, as we have no direct evidence of such a link). But in that case the article is poorly phrased.

UPDATE 2: I feel that I should point out that there are other options too, e.g.: the source does exist, but the leaker and/or the Washington Post have exaggerated what s/he said; the source exists, and did say what the Post reports, but s/he made it all up, and told it to the Americans because s/he felt it would make the Americans happy and keep the cash payments flowing; etc.

 

 

 

Why we’re losing

As I noted in a previous post, the failure of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere is in large part a product of a lack of strategic thinking. But there is more to it than that. While Western armies are excellent from a purely tactical point of view – i.e. they can drop bombs and fight engagements very efficiently – both they and their civilian counterparts are staggeringly incompetent in other respects. Even with the best possible strategy, they would still probably fail.

To understand why, I urge you all (as I have done before) to read the reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Here is a summary of the latest.  And bear in mind that this is just one small example. The waste identified here has been repeated in scores and scores of other projects. When the history of this campaign is written, the scale of waste, incompetence, and corruption will boggle the mind.

If it weren’t so tragic, you’d have to laugh (OK, I confess that I did).

Can somebody explain to me how they think we can win this war?

— DOD’s [US Department of Defense’s] decision to procure ANA [Afghan National Army] uniforms using a proprietary camouflage pattern was not based on an evaluation of its appropriateness for the Afghan environment.

— Procurement costs to the U.S. government were 40–43 percent [higher] than similar non-proprietary patterned uniforms used by the Afghan National Police (ANP), which potentially added between $26.65 million and $28.23 million to the costs of the ANA uniform procurements since 2008.

— In 2007, responsible DOD officials stated that they “ran across [HyperStealth’s] web site and the Minister [then Minister of Defense Wardak] liked what he saw. He liked the woodland, urban, and temperate patterns.” {This is where I laughed – PR}

— CSTC-A, in consultation with the Afghan MOD, decided to adopt the camouflage pattern containing a “forest” color scheme for ANA uniforms, despite the fact that forests cover only 2.1 percent of Afghanistan’s total land area. {And laughed again – PR}

— Determining the effectiveness of a uniform pattern for a specific environment requires formal testing and evaluation.

— Acording to a technical paper prepared for the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, the spatial characteristics and color palette of a camouflage pattern should be tailored to the specific environment. Matching a camouflage pattern “with background texture, color, and contrast is essential to all levels of visual processing.”

— CSTC-A, however, made the decision to procure 1,364,602 ANA uniforms and 88,010 extra pairs of pants —totaling approximately $94 million—using HyperStealth’s Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern without conducting any formal testing or evaluation.

— As a result, neither DOD nor the Afghan government knows whether the ANA uniform is appropriate to the Afghan environment, or whether it actually hinders their operations by providing a more clearly visible target to the enemy.

— CSTC-A recommended a sole-source award to HypersStealth but the DOD contracting office believed that, because there were so many available camouflage patterns in the world, a sole-source award would be hard to justify.

— Instead of issuing a sole-source award, DOD issued a local acquisition solicitation that included the requirement that the uniforms use HyperStealth’s proprietary Spec4ce Forest camouflage pattern.

— CSTC-A initially estimated that the new ANA uniform would cost $25–$30 per set. The actual cost ranged from $45.42–$80.39 per set.

— Our analysis found that changing the ANA uniform to a non-proprietary camouflage pattern could save U.S. taxpayers between $68.61 million and $72.21 million over the next 10 years.

— SIGAR suggests that DOD conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the current ANA uniform specification to determine whether there is a more effective alternative, considering both operational environment and cost, available.

 

Strategy-free time

It’s a depressing truth, but at least someone has finally had the guts to admit it. The United States has no strategy for its war in Afghanistan, or as Defence Secretary James Mattis put it in testimony to the US Senate, it is a ‘strategy-free time’. Mattis promised to put a strategy together. ‘We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,’ he said, ‘And we will correct this as soon as possible.’

Forgive me if I’m sceptical. The United States hasn’t managed to come up with a winning strategy in the 16 years it has been fighting in Afghanistan. It beggars belief that Mattis has the solution up his sleeve. After all, he’s been part of the war since the beginning.

The United States lacks a workable strategy in Syria as well. Theoretically speaking, US support for rebel forces in Syria is justified by the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is meant to help destroy ISIS. But because of recent advances by troops of the Syrian Arab Army (the official government forces), the rebels are no longer in physical contact with ISIS. As you can see from the map below, they couldn’t fight ISIS even if they wanted to.

Syrian_civil_war

Continue reading Strategy-free time