Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sense about Syria, from Jimmy Carter?

Could it be? Take a look:

Jimmy Carter: A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis
[...] In May 2015, a group of global leaders known as the Elders visited Moscow, where we had detailed discussions with the American ambassador, former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and representatives of international think tanks, including the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Center.

They pointed out the longstanding partnership between Russia and the Assad regime and the great threat of the Islamic State to Russia, where an estimated 14 percent of its population are Sunni Muslims. Later, I questioned President Putin about his support for Mr. Assad, and about his two sessions that year with representatives of factions from Syria. He replied that little progress had been made, and he thought that the only real chance of ending the conflict was for the United States and Russia to be joined by Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in preparing a comprehensive peace proposal. He believed that all factions in Syria, except the Islamic State, would accept almost any plan endorsed strongly by these five, with Iran and Russia supporting Mr. Assad and the other three backing the opposition. With his approval, I relayed this suggestion to Washington.

For the past three years, the Carter Center has been working with Syrians across political divides, armed opposition group leaders and diplomats from the United Nations and Europe to find a political path for ending the conflict. This effort has been based on data-driven research about the Syrian catastrophe that the center has conducted, which reveals the location of different factions and clearly shows that neither side in Syria can prevail militarily.

The recent decision by Russia to support the Assad regime with airstrikes and other military forces has intensified the fighting, raised the level of armaments and may increase the flow of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. At the same time, it has helped to clarify the choice between a political process in which the Assad regime assumes a role and more war in which the Islamic State becomes an even greater threat to world peace. With these clear alternatives, the five nations mentioned above could formulate a unanimous proposal. Unfortunately, differences among them persist.


The involvement of Russia and Iran is essential. Mr. Assad’s only concession in four years of war was giving up chemical weapons, and he did so only under pressure from Russia and Iran. Similarly, he will not end the war by accepting concessions imposed by the West, but is likely to do so if urged by his allies.

Mr. Assad’s governing authority could then be ended in an orderly process, an acceptable government established in Syria, and a concerted effort could then be made to stamp out the threat of the Islamic State. [...]
I'm not a Jimmy Carter fan. But if you read the whole thing, for the full context, it actually makes sense. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Carter may be right about this. It should be seriously considered.


Monday, October 26, 2015

The S.S. United States: can she be saved?

Friends of the S.S. United States Send Out a Last S.O.S.

A Titanic-sized supership that once ferried presidents, Hollywood royalty, actual royalty and even the Mona Lisa has a place in the history books as the fastest oceanliner in the world. The owners are now racing to avoid having the ship, the S.S. United States, relegated to the junk heap.

A preservationist group, the S.S. United States Conservancy, saved the vessel from being scrapped a few years ago. Its members are working with a developer to give the mothballed vessel a new life as a stationary waterfront real-estate development in New York City, the ship’s home port in her heyday.

Their big dreams, however, now face a financial crisis: Short of money, the conservancy in recent days formally authorized a ship broker to explore the potential sale to a recycler. In other words, the preservationists might have to scrap their vessel.

It came down to hard numbers. The preservationists have struggled for years to raise the $60,000 a month it costs to dock and maintain the ship, known as the Big U, which is longer than three football fields and once sailed the Atlantic with three orchestras on board. A developer only recently started shaping plans to fill the ship with tenants, an undertaking of the kind that can stretch for years even when it is not this unusual.

“The project is not cookie-cutter,” said Susan Gibbs, the conservancy’s executive director. “This has complicated our efforts.”

The conservancy continues to seek out donors, investors or a buyer to preserve the ship and press forward with development. But unless something happens by Oct. 31, the group said in a statement, “We will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible recycler.”

The decision to seek bids from scrappers was “excruciating,” said Ms. Gibbs, particularly since the development plan emerged in the last year. “We’ve never been closer to saving the S.S. United States, and we’ve never been closer to losing her,” she said.

Her connection is personal. Ms. Gibbs’s grandfather William Francis Gibbs, a giant of 20th century naval architecture, designed the ship and considered it his masterwork. [...]
See the whole thing for more photos, embedded links, slideshow and more.

I remember visiting the Queen Mary Cruise Ship in Long Beach California, where it is permanently moored as a floating tourist attraction, with a hotel, restaurants, convention center, museum and more. It was very enjoyable and a memorable experience. Could not the same be done for the S.S. United States, before it disappears forever? I wish for it this:

It's an artist's rendition, but with the right investors, it could become a reality. Will it, before time runs out? Such a rich piece of history, let's not throw it away when it could be recycled in a productive, useful new way, and provide enjoyment for generations to come.

Also see:

Save the S.S. United States from the scrap-heap

The S.S. United States: Darkest Days

The S.S. United States: Built to Last

SS United States, Part 2: The Blue Riband


"Demographics tend to be political destiny"

Republicans’ 2016 math problem, explained in two charts
It's easy to overthink elections. I do it all the time. But at its most basic level, demographics tend to be political destiny. And that's why Dan Balz's column over the weekend, which details the difficult demographic realities facing the Republican Party in 2016 (and beyond), is so important. [...]
Read the whole thing for the two charts, embedded links and more. I think it explains a lot.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Who's got the better plan for Syria?

One could argue, Russia has the more realistic one:

Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin?
[...] And yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one. These perceptions arise in part because Obama inherited several foreign-policy debacles, and it’s hard to abandon a bunch of failed projects without being accused of retreating. Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up.

But Putin has also done one thing right: He has pursued simple objectives that were fairly easy to achieve and that played to Russia’s modest strengths. In Ukraine, he had one overriding goal: to prevent that country from moving closer to the EU, eventually becoming a full member, and then joining NATO. He wasn’t interested in trying to reincorporate all of Ukraine or turn it into a clone of Russia, and the “frozen conflict” that now exists there is sufficient to achieve his core goal. This essentially negative objective was not that hard to accomplish because Ukraine was corrupt, internally divided, and right next door to Russia. These features made it easy for Putin to use a modest degree of force and hard for anyone else to respond without starting a cycle of escalation they could not win.

Putin’s goals in Syria are equally simple, realistic, and aligned with Russia’s limited means. He wants to preserve the Assad regime as a meaningful political entity so that it remains an avenue of Russian influence and a part of any future political settlement. He’s not trying to conquer Syria, restore the Alawites to full control over the entire country, defeat the Islamic State, or eliminate all Iranian influence. And he’s certainly not pursuing some sort of quixotic dream of building democracy there. A limited deployment of Russian airpower and a handful of “volunteers” may suffice to keep Assad from being defeated, especially if the United States and others eventually adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict as well.

By contrast, U.S. goals toward both of these conflicts have been a combination of wishful thinking and strategic contradictions. In Ukraine, a familiar alliance of neocon fantasists (e.g., Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland) and liberal internationalists convinced themselves that the EU Accession Agreement was a purely benign act whose virtues and alleged neutrality no one could possibly misconstrue. As a result, they were completely blindsided when Moscow kept using the realpolitik playbook and saw the whole matter very differently. (There was an element of hypocrisy and blindness here, too; Russia was simply acting the same way the United States has long acted when dealing with the Western Hemisphere, but somehow U.S. officials managed to ignore the clear warnings that Moscow had given.) Moreover, the core Western objective — creating a well-functioning democratic Ukrainian state — was a laudable but hugely demanding task from the very beginning, whereas Putin’s far more limited goal — keeping Ukraine out of NATO — was comparatively easy.

Needless to say, U.S. policy in Syria has been even more muddled. Since the uprising first began, Washington has been vainly trying to achieve a series of difficult and incompatible goals. It says, “Assad must go,” but it doesn’t want any jihadi groups (i.e., the only people who are really fighting Assad) to replace him. It wants to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” but it also wants to make sure anti-Islamic State groups like al-Nusra Front don’t succeed. It is relying on Kurdish fighters to help deal with the Islamic State, but it wants Turkey to help, too, and Turkey opposes any steps that might stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism. So the United States has been searching in vain for “politically correct” Syrian rebels — those ever-elusive “moderates” — and it has yet to find more than a handful. And apart from wanting Assad gone, the long-term U.S. vision for Syria’s future was never clear. Given all this muddled direction, is it any wonder Putin’s actions look bold and decisive while Obama’s seem confused?

This difference is partly structural: Because Russia is much weaker than the United States (and destined to grow even weaker over time), it has to play its remaining cards carefully and pursue only vital objectives that are achievable at modest cost. The United States has vastly more resources to throw at global problems, and its favorable geopolitical position allows it to avoid most of the repercussions of its mistakes. Add to that the tendency of both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists to believe that spreading the gospel of “freedom” around the world is necessary, easy to do, and won’t generate unintended consequences or serious resistance, and you have a recipe for an overly ambitious yet under-resourced set of policy initiatives. Needless to say, this is the perfect recipe for recurring failure. [...]
Having a strong hand is not perhaps as important as playing well the hand you have.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Did Obama miss an important opportunity when he met with Putin in NY?

This article from Salon says yes, indeed:

Thomas Friedman, read your Chomsky: The New York Times gets Putin/Obama all wrong, again
[...] It is now several weeks since Russia let it be known that it would reinforce its long-standing support of Bashar al-Assad with new military commitments. First came the materiƩl. Bombing runs began a week ago. On Monday, a senior military official in Moscow announced that Russian troops are to join the fight against the Islamic State.

We are always encouraged to find anything Putin does devious and the outcome of hidden motives and some obscure agenda having to do with his pouting ambition to be seen as a first-rank world leader. From the government-supervised New York Times on down, this is what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio and television broadcasts. I urge readers to pay no attention to this stuff. It is all about Washington’s agenda to obscure.

Russia’s favored strategy in Syria has long been very clear. It is a question of distinguishing the primary and secondary contradictions, as the Marxists say. The Assad regime is to be kept in place so as to preserve those political institutions still functioning as the basis of a reconstructed national government. Once the threat of Islamic terror is defeated, a political transition into a post-Assad reconstruction can be negotiated.

For a time it appeared that Washington was prepared to buy into this set of expedients. This impression derived from the very frequent contacts between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom the American secretary of state has often worked closely.

Then came the fateful encounter between Obama and Putin at the U.N. Obama spoke first, Putin afterward. Then the two met privately.

A few days ago a source in Moscow with good lines into Kremlin thinking wrote a long note on the Obama-Putin encounter in New York. Here is some of what this source said:

The meeting with Obama in New York did not go well. It was extremely contentious, and Obama did not engage. Putin made the case that the important first priority had to be to eliminate Daesh [the Islamic State], and that after more than a year of the U.S. campaign there has been no significant success. Indeed, the contrary is the case.

Putin’s point was that air power alone will not succeed, and that now the only real boots on the ground are the Kurds and the armies of Syria and its supporters—Hezbollah and some Iranians, but the Iranians troops involved in the struggle with Daesh are operating mostly in Iraq.

Putin proposed creating a coalition, the equivalent of the anti-Hitler alliance, to focus on Daesh, and then focusing in Round 2 on the transition of Syria into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions—Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and a few others—which all work together now.

Putin had been led to believe through the Lavrov /Kerry channel… that there would be a broader agreement to work together. So he was surprised that Obama did not seize the opportunity to engage the battle in a coordinated way…. In the end they agreed only on coordination between the two militaries to avoid running into each other.

Putin left New York with the view that it is now much more important to support the government in Syria than he had thought before he went, because he came convinced that the U.S., left to its present course, is going to create another Libya, this time in Syria. Israel has a similar view, as does Egypt, Iran, and, increasingly, countries in Europe. With Daesh already so deeply implanted, this would lead to vast crisis—military, political, economic, humanitarian—that would spread across all of the Middle East, into the Caucasus and across North Africa, with millions of refugees….

There are four things to say about this account straight off the top. One, the subtext is that Putin reached the point in New York when he effectively threw up his hands and said, “I’m fed up.” Two, Obama went into that meeting more or less befuddled as to what to say. In a word, he was outclassed.

Three, the strategy Putin presented to Obama is clear, logical, lawful and has a good chance of working. In other words, it is everything the Obama administration’s is not, Kerry’s efforts to work with Lavrov notwithstanding.

Four and most important, the history books may well conclude that the U.N. on Sept. 27 was the very place and the very day the U.S. ceded the initiative to Russia on the Syria crisis. This is my read as of now, although in circumstances this kinetic it is too perilous to anticipate what may come next.

The American press has been slightly berserk subsequent to the U.N. encounter, putting more spin on the new Russian policy than a gyroscope has in space. Putin is weak and desperate, he is making Syria more violent, Russian jets are bombing CIA-backed “moderates” and not ISIS, this is Russia’s second Afghanistan, nothing can work so long as Assad remains in power.

“Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power,” Tom Friedman, a standout in this line, wrote in the Times last week. “Watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. ‘Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?’”

I read all this with a mirror: It is nothing more than a reflection of how far below its knees the Obama administration’s pants have just fallen. Who went stupidly into Syria, Tom? Yo, Tom, your lump-them-together prejudices are showing: Most of “the Sunni Muslim world” is as appalled by the Islamic State as the non-Sunni Muslim world.


What a weird sensation it is to agree with Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington’s Post’s too-numerous right-wing opinion-page writers. It is like traveling in a strange, badly run country where something always seems about to go wrong.

“If it had the wit, the Obama administration would be not angered, but appropriately humiliated,” Krauthammer wrote in last Thursday’s paper. “President Obama has, once again, been totally outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin.”

It is a lot better than Tom Friedman’s driveling defense of the president. Somewhere, at least, a spade is still a spade. But with this observation the common ground with Krauthammer begins and ends. Obama has got it radically wrong in Syria—and indeed across the Middle East—but not in the ways we are encouraged to think. Where lie the errors, then? [...]
The author of the article has a great deal more to say. He clearly isn't on the side of American Foreign Policy regarding Syria (or much else). But many of the questions posited are worth asking. What are we doing in Syria?

IF indeed the above plan was proposed to Obama by Putin, I have to say, it makes more sense to me than supporting small Sunni groups against Assad. The sooner the war there ends, the better. If then Syria transitions "into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions", that might well stem the flow of refugees, and stabilize the region.

It sounds like a plan. Have we anything better to offer? I'm just askin'.

It sounds more realistic and plausible than what's being said by our Bagdad Bob President. The only thing I can say in defense of Obama is, I wasn't at the meeting with Putin, and I don't know what was said. But if it was as described as above, I would have to wonder if it indeed was a missed opportunity.

Also see: 'This is victory as far as they're concerned': Obama could be wrong about Putin's big moves in Syria

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

What are we doing in Syria?

It's not too hard to see what Russia is doing:

Russia joins war in Syria: Five key points
[...] The Russian president is one of Mr Assad's most important international backers.

Ties between their countries go back four decades and the Syrian port of Tartous is the location of the last Russian naval base in the Middle East. Russia has blocked several resolutions critical of Mr Assad at the UN Security Council and supplied weapons to the Syrian military, saying it is violating no international laws.

With Syrian government forces suffering a string of defeats to both rebel forces and IS over the past year, Mr Putin decided to intervene. In early September, Russian warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, anti-aircraft systems and hundreds of marines arrived at a base in Latakia province.

Russian officials have reportedly said they are not intent on keeping Mr Assad in power, but they see his government as a bulwark against IS, which controls large parts of northern and eastern Syria.

Asked in an interview with CBS if his goal was "trying to save the Assad administration", Mr Putin replied: "You're right."

Russia's military build-up hints at wider involvement

Russia's deployment of air-to-air fighter aircraft and air-defence systems in Latakia suggests it may be preparing to do more than just carry out air strikes on IS and protect its base at Tartous.

Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen Philip Breedlove, warned on 28 September that Russia was developing an anti-aircraft "bubble" in the eastern Mediterranean. "These very sophisticated air-defence capabilities are not about [IS]," he said.

"High on Mr Putin's list in Syria is preserving the regime against those that are putting pressure on the regime, and against those that they see who might be supporting those putting pressure on the regime," the general added. [...]
There is a long history of support for Syria, it isn't something new. The Russian Navy base there, etc. So why the heavy military involvement NOW? By backing Assad and bombing all the rebels, Russia is insuring that the flow of refugees into Europe will continue. I think it may at least partly be payback for the sanctions Europe and the US have put against Russia for it's invasion of the Ukraine. Tit for tat.

The US state department is going on about supporting the Sunni rebels, replacing Assad, blah blah blah. They have nothing to back it up with, so what's the point of continuing with that? What are we doing in Syria anyway? Haven't we had enough of "Nation Building" in the Middle East?

If Europe and the US want Putin to cooperate, they will have to offer him something he wants. I would guess that would be the lifting of sanctions against Russia. Otherwise, Russia will stay on it's current course, and the refugees will just keep on coming. Duh. Am I wrong? Does it not make sense as a strategy?

Putin's playbook in Syria draws on Ukraine and loathing for revolution
[...] Some analysts see Putin as an opportunist, aware of Russian military and economic shortcomings but willing to take advantage of a vacuum or others' hesitation. Before moving to take Crimea, he knew the Ukrainian military was in a dire state and Kiev almost bankrupt. He was confident the United States and NATO would huff and puff but not dare to challenge him. The stakes were not high enough.

The same calculation applied to the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Talk in Western capitals of arming the Ukrainians with offensive weapons such as missiles capable of taking out separatists' Russian tanks came to nothing. Sanctions were the preferred option -- cautious but eventually damaging.

Similarly, the failure of the West to stand up moderate opposition to al-Assad, its reluctance to engage capable Islamist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and help them take the battle to the regime, provided Russia with an opportunity to reshape the battlefield. Again, Putin calculated the West would and could not resist Russia's intervention. Was the U.S. likely to bomb the runway at Latakia? [...]
Read the whole thing for relevant history (which actually explains quite a lot), and a look the larger picture from several angles. Probable outcomes?