Why Putin Has His Way with Europe

By Jay Holmes

This past February, Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence and military services to invade Crimea in the Eastern Ukraine. Western governments loudly condemned Russia’s aggression, but practical responses have been limited to minor economic sanctions and visa restrictions against major Russian supporters of Putin.

In predictable fashion, Putin responded with symbolic bans on U.S. involvement in Russian energy development. Neither Western responses nor Putin’s counter-measures count for much in the short term. However, in the long term, Russia wants the oil and gas fracking technology that U.S. companies dominate. To get that, Putin is betting that the West will forget about Russian aggression in Ukraine as quickly as it forgot about the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

 

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008 Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008
Wikimedia Commons, public domain

 

Thus far, there are striking similarities between the Georgian and Ukrainian invasions.

In 2008, Georgia, like the Ukraine of 2014, was expanding its economic and cultural ties with the West while reducing its trade with Russia. That year, Putin quickly seized Georgian territories where there was a significant Russian speaking population. Then he moved more military assets to the Georgian frontier than Russia needed for the intended operations. The propaganda campaign projected an image of Putin’s wild popularity across all segments of Russian society and total approval of his aggression in Georgia. Georgia seemed to be on the brink of complete absorption by Russia.

The West enacted economic sanctions and demanded that Russia withdraw. Putin then announced that his army was withdrawing from Georgia, but, in fact, his army enforced an annexation of Georgian territory. Once it appeared that the crisis was de-escalated, the West quickly rescinded the economic sanctions. Putin got what he wanted and suffered nothing for forcibly annexing part of Georgia.

In Ukraine, we see Putin once again employing this same basic strategy that worked so well in 2008. The Ukrainian people made it clear that they did not want closer economic and political alliances with Russia in exchange for promised Russian financial aid. Protests mounted, and the Russian backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia responded by sending special forces to invade and seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

In response, the West enacted mild sanctions against Russia.

Putin deployed more Russian military assets to the Ukrainian border areas than were needed to take the Crimea and then he asked for and received permission from the Russian parliament to invade all of Ukraine. The propaganda campaign in the Russian media created an image of a nation of one mind and soul ready to invade and annex more Ukraine territory, or even the entire country.

 

Canstock 2014 Bear Market

image from Canstock

 

Underneath Russia’s bravado, we saw the Russian stock market take a major nose dive.

This forced Putin to use ten billion dollars in Russia’s reserves to prop up the Russian currency and avert a credit crisis. Because Putin was certain that the sanctions were temporary, he likely predicted the economic impact of Ukraine invasion and calculated it as a bargain price for the purchase of Crimea.

As the situation in Ukraine appeared to be escalating beyond the Crimea, the U.S., Poland, and Romania asked their European allies to agree to increased sanctions. Most of the E.U. opposed the increased sanctions, so nothing meaningful happened. It became apparent to Ukrainians that many of their European neighbors were not willing to lose profitable business agreements with Russia in order to support them.

About thirty-three percent of Europe’s fossil fuel imports are from Russia. If we add in the ISIS crisis in Iraq, the energy picture has to concern European governments. Even those nations that do not directly import gas or oil from Russia would see steep price increases if Russian fuel imports stopped. That reality undoubtedly figures enormously into Europe’s unwillingness to support Ukraine by enacting meaningful economic sanctions against Russia. Conversely, with fracking operations now in place and growing in the U.S., the U.S. is becoming a significant gas exporter, it is easier for the U.S. to risk economic boycotts against Russia.

One of the most visible and controversial touchstones of the economic conflict of interest for the Western world regarding Russia’s Ukrainian invasion is a pending ship building contract between France’s STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and the Russian Navy.

In 2011, the Russian Navy contracted and partially funded the building of four high-tech amphibious warfare ships. With the Russian annexation of Georgian territory fresh in their minds, France’s Western allies voiced opposition to the deal because most Western governments did not want to improve Russia’s ability to invade their neighbors. One ship is near completion, and the second is partially constructed. The first ship is due for delivery in October of this year.

 

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire
Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

 

In addition to four powerful amphibious warfare ships, Russia will gain significant upgrades in electronic warfare systems from the French equipment installed on those ships. France benefits in that the one billion, six hundred million Euro payment from Russia fuels approximately a thousand French jobs. With France’s continuing high unemployment rates, the Paris government is reluctant to abandon the work and refund Russia its deposit.

The U.S., Poland, the U.K., and Ukraine appropriately and frankly criticized France’s ship deal with Russia. Predictably, Putin responded by saying that he looks forward to placing large orders for more naval ships from France once these ships are delivered.

On June 30, 2014, four hundred Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire for training on the shipboard systems. If and when the Russian sailors are given full access to the newer military systems and technologies, France will have allowed major warfare technologies to transfer to Putin’s navy at a time when Eastern Europeans are frantically trying to improve their security against Russian aggression.

The U.S. has suggested one easy way out for France. Rather than lose the financial value of the contracts with Russia, it could lease the two ships already under construction to NATO to be employed by NATO’s Standing Force, possibly in the Black Sea.

Thus far, Europe has been ambivalent to that idea. If Europe can cooperate amongst itself and with the U.S. enough to prevent the transfer of the French naval warfare technology to Russia, it would be a major achievement for European cooperation and security, but it would not address the deeper underlying problems.

Europe is facing major economic problems and has been relying heavily on large doses of political P.R. driven denial.

Take the U.K. as a simple case. The U.K. is the largest producer of oil and the second-largest producer of natural gas in the European Union. Production from U.K. oil fields peaked around the late 1990s and has declined steadily since then. Domestic production of natural gas is also steadily declining. Although once a net exporter of natural gas, the U.K. now imports more natural gas from Norway each year. Norway is limited in how much and how fast it can increase its gas exports to the U.K. The U.K. is also importing oil from Russia. Soon, the U.K. will have to drastically cut its natural gas consumption or find more import sources. This likely means sharp price increases for gas consumers in the U.K.

Four days ago, I had a polite conversation about the U.K.’s energy needs with a respected economist from London. He assured me that, “We can get most of the gas that we need from Norway, and recent discoveries show that in the future we can get all the gas we need from fracking.” He was unconcerned about the U.K.’s current energy dilemma.

 

Unaltered image by Battenbrook wikimedia commons

Unaltered image by Battenbrook
wikimedia commons

 

Fracking comes with serious environmental concerns.

France and Romania have already outlawed the practice. In light of these concerns, how much fracking will occur in the U.K., and how fast can it can it become a reality? Not fast enough to avoid increased prices at the pump and increased vulnerability to Russian aggression.

The U.K. is just one example of how European nations must juggle conflicting priorities in dealing with both Russian aggression against Europe and the usual turmoil in the Middle East. The U.K.’s powerful E.U. partner Germany, following initial indignation, has been somewhat muted in condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Germany is the one Western European nation that is not on the fast track to bankruptcy, and it cannot afford to ignore its major trade agreements with Russia.

We could go on, but why depress our European readers?

The fact is that North America and Europe must find the political courage to openly face the economic and energy questions that so greatly affect the future of Western civilization. A public that is unaware of energy issues cannot effectively demand that European and North American governments formulate policies that their citizens are willing to accept. Those policies shape how Europe can respond to Russian aggression. As long as the E.U., the U.S., and Canada limit their cooperation to lip service, Eastern Europe will remain at risk of further Russian invasions and energy blackmail.

Dances With Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

By Jay Holmes

On February 23, 2014, with the help of ethnic Russians in Crimea, Russia’s special forces and intelligence services stepped up their pro-Russian campaign to a degree that signaled that a Russian invasion and that annexation of the Crimean region was likely to occur. Emboldened by Russian military support, pro-Russian protesters in the area became more violent and more demanding.

During the last three years, national sentiment in Ukraine has shifted toward closer ties with Europe. How and when, not if, Ukraine would enter the European Union was the topic of daily debate in Ukraine. While Europeans, including most Ukrainians, were forging those closer ties, the infamous Dancing Bear of Moscow, Vladimir Putin, began to formulate a very different view of Ukraine’s future.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.
wikimedia commons

 

Prior to February of 2014, as these tensions played out in Ukraine, Western nations were relying on two basic strategies. The strategy pursued by most Western nations ranged from “Where is Ukraine?” to “How soon can they join the EU?”  The US pragmatically pursued a more focused policy—the “I hope that all goes well and nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”  Once a Russian invasion of Crimea was imminent, the West quickly reacted with new strategies. Most European nations seemed to be relying on the US to “do something.” The US responded by upgrading its own strategy to “Gosh, I really, really hope nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”

On February 28, 2014, the not-so-sneaky Russians did their best impersonation of a “sneak attack” in Crimea. All the West’s best hopes and wishes had not prevented the obvious. US President Obama (a.k.a. Dances With Bears) and other Western leaders quickly announced that there would be “consequences” for Russia in response to their invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, Putin responded by claiming that Crimea belonged to Russia all along. He then reminded Europe that they like Russian gas supplies.

As expected, the “consequences” promised by the West have been mild.

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell, GNU Free Documentation License, wikimedia commons

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell,
GNU Free Documentation License,
wikimedia commons

Moderate economic sanctions and a list of Russians who will not receive US entry is all it amounted to.  Across Western Europe, the political rhetoric varied from near silence to mild displeasure. Putin is probably thrilled by this lack of a coordinated response on the part of the West.

Since February, Russia has officially annexed Crimea and continues to orchestrate, supply, and partially man protests and riots in Eastern Ukraine. Russian mechanized forces are staged along the Russian Ukraine border.  So now what?

On May 7, Vladimir Putin gave a televised speech to the Russian people. The speech was the usual double talk that we can always count on Putin to deliver. Here is a small, translated excerpt of Putin’s speech. “We must look for ways out of the situation as it is today. We all have an interest in ending this crisis, Ukraine and its people above all. Thus I say that we all want the crisis to end as soon as possible and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine, no matter where they live. The discussion with Mr. President showed that our approaches to possible solutions to the crisis have much in common.”

Putin meme i don't always invade a foreign country

When he said “Mr. President,” Putin was referring to the visiting president of Switzerland. As far as his claim that they share “much in common,” it’s true in the same sense that the chicken and the fox might momentarily share the same hen house. In case you wonder, the translation is the official translation to English done by the Kremlin media office. As usual, Putin sounds semi-conciliatory, and as usual, his words don’t mean much except to the Russian public. In the same speech, Putin directly contradicted his own foreign minister by claiming that he supports the upcoming May 25 elections in Ukraine as “a step in the right direction.”

Fortunately, most Western leaders are responding to Putin’s speech with muted skepticism.  A few Putin admirers and the occasional innocent have welcomed Putin’s speech as a turning-point in the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s military dispositions on the Ukraine border and his country’s ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine are a very clear measure of Putin’s actual intentions. In light of that, the West should formulate a united response to Russian aggression. That response should include increased economic sanctions.

Thus far, the economic sanctions have had a small negative impact on the Russian economy. If those sanctions are increased and continue in force, the impacts will be far more significant. Russia has significant foreign debt in the form of bonds. As the trade value of those bonds continues to drop and interest rates rise, Russian companies will find it difficult to finance growth. That will drive up unemployment to levels that will not keep Russians happy with Vlady the Dancing Bear.

Thus far, one positive development has occurred as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, have prioritized finding new sources of natural gas so they can avoid dependency on Russia. This will include the delivery of liquefied petroleum gas from the USA to a new port facility in Lithuania. Let’s all hope that the facility is well designed and safely operated. Don’t buy a vacation home in that neighborhood. New gas supplies will not be prepared quickly. It will take several years to make a sizeable impact in the European gas supply, but there is now more cooperation than ever before in the energy planning of Western states. It’s about time.

So here is my best guess for the near future in Ukraine. Putin is not going to relinquish Crimea—not this month, or any month. Russia will likely not launch an all-out invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has taken the measure of his geopolitical dance partners in the West. He does not want full-scale cooperation against Russia by the US, Canada, and Europe. Russia could all but eliminate the strife in Eastern Ukraine by withdrawing its military and financial support for pro-Russian Ukrainians and by ending its clandestine operations in Ukraine. However, in all likelihood, Russia will continue to direct a smoldering conflict in Eastern Ukraine while pretending to be “seeking peace.” The uncertainty and chaos in Ukraine suits his purposes. From Putin’s point of view, it keeps the West “on the edge” without causing a more harsh Western response.

In my view, the best way for the West to help the Ukraine is to avoid vague threats and present a united front with well-enforced economic sanctions against Russia. That bear dances well, but all bears must eat, and the Russian bear has a big appetite that feeds on cash from U.S. and Western banks. Reasonable sanctions won’t wrestle the Crimea from Russia, but they can prevent Russia from invading and seizing a third of the remaining Ukraine without firing a shot.

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Dances with Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

By Jay Holmes

If we are to have any chance of understanding the present dynamic of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, we must look to the history of the region and its people. In Part One, we followed the Ukraine Timeline from the founding of the first Ukrainian city in 907 A.D. through the ascendance of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a.k.a. Stalin 2.0. In Part Two, the Timeline continues up to the present Russian invasion. Today, we look at current situation and what it means to Europe and the West.

Kiev Protestors February 18, 2014 image by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/http://www.unframe.com.jpg wikimedia commons

Kiev Protestors February 18, 2014
image by Mstyslav Chernov
Unframe.com
wikimedia commons

The crisis in Ukraine is the product of many factors. Russian speaking pro-Russian citizens populate the Crimea and other areas of Ukraine. Putin is using this most effectively to satisfy the centuries-old Russian imperial ambitions to expand southward. Russia has well equipped military forces based in the Crimea by treaty with the Ukraine — a treaty that many Ukrainians no doubt deeply regret today. Ukraine shares borders with Poland, Romania, and Moldavia, which are all becoming more “Europeanized” and more “Western-looking” with each passing year. Unfortunately for Ukraine, they also share borders with Russia and with her pro-Putin police state ally, Belarus.

A clear majority of Ukrainians have rejected the police state values of Russia and Russian allies. They have made it clear that they want to be part of Europe. On the surface, this is evidenced by the Ukraine’s attempts to forge a trade agreement with Europe. That trade agreement included provisions for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. Vladimir Putin remains opposed to that trade agreement and opposed to those basic human rights because such basic human rights make it more difficult for him to operate as a dictator in Russia and to achieve his goals for the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.

The Crimea and the region of Ukraine that lies between Russia and the Crimea are of immense value to Putin. If he is able to annex or control those areas, Russia and any members of the Eurasian Customs Union will then have direct access to the Black Sea and hence the Mediterranean. Part of Putin’s timing in taking over the Crimea has to do with the weather. Historically, the winter has meant a decrease in military operations in and by Russia. In a reversal of that trend, Russia now prefers to conduct as much of its military operations in Ukraine while the weather is still cold.

Russian Gas & Oil Pipelines Through Ukraine map by Victor Korniyenko, wikimedia commons

Russian Gas & Oil Pipelines Through Ukraine
map by Victor Korniyenko, wikimedia commons

That’s because Ukrainian gas supplies come from Russia. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, Moldavia, and Turkey all get between 64% and 100% of their natural gas supplies from Russia.  Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Romania receive between 14% and 48% of their natural gas supplies from Russia.  Those natural gas supplies are more critical during colder months. That basic fact of European life gives Russia important leverage over any European response to its actions in Ukraine.

Given Putin’s naked expansionist ambitions and Western Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas and Russian oil, Putin may be boldly aggressive in Ukraine. Responses from the West will range from muted to lame “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not be without a stiff price.” However, Russia has been trying for a thousand years to rule the Crimea and the greater Ukraine. In spite of ruthless genocides and unbridled brutality, it has never succeeded in the past, and it’s unlikely that the Ukrainian people will bend to Russian will regardless of support or the lack thereof from the West.

Vladimir Putin is telling his audiences in Russia and in Ukraine that Ukraine’s anti-government protestors are led by a Jewish conspiracy. He is simultaneously telling everyone outside of Russia and Ukraine that the protestors are dangerous anti-Semite Nazis. They are neither. The protestors in Ukraine are a broad coalition of diverse affiliations ranging from women’s rights groups and lesbian and gay rights groups to right-wing Ukrainian nationalists. What they share is a desire for Ukraine to be free of Russia and for its citizens to enjoy basic human rights.

Putin may see a victory for himself in Ukraine, but should he be unlucky enough to pursue and achieve that victory, the results will make the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan resemble a picnic compared to dealing with the Ukrainians and their sympathizers in the West. Putin will undoubtedly make his best effort to gain as much territory as he can and as many Ukrainian concessions as he can without instigating a full-scale war in Ukraine.  If he miscalculates, the price will be steep for Ukraine, but it will also lead to a severe decline in the Russian economy, which might further erode Putin’s popularity at home.

March 2, 2014 Protestors against Russian invasion: "Crimea is Ukraine." image by BO CBo6ona, wikimedia commons

March 2, 2014
Maidan protestors against Russian invasion:
“Crimea is Ukraine.”
image by BO CBo6ona, wikimedia commons

An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians has made it clear that they want independence from Russia, human rights, and membership in the European community. Their demands are reasonable. For the sake of the Ukrainians as well as Russians and Europeans, let us hope that the power-thirsty Russian dictator does not overplay his hand.

Special Thanks to photographer Mstyslav Chernov of Unframe Photographers for the amazing photographs he made available at Wikimedia Commons. Please visit the Unframe Photographers site at Unframe.com and Mstyslav Chernov’s site at MstyslavChernov.com for more outstanding documentary photos.

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Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

Iraq — Ten Years Later

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes

Ten years ago this week, a US led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. While it is still a bit too soon to see the long term prospects for the post-Saddam Iraq, we have enough hindsight to make reasonable judgments about the overall effects of the Coalition conquest.

Previously, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and conquered it within two days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein then declared Kuwait a province of Iraq and began a barrage of verbal threats against Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi army was then within short striking distance of Saudi oil fields. That mattered to the West for humanitarian reasons and because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were, and still are, exporting oil to Western nations. Which reason mattered most depends on which Westerner or non-Westerner you ask.

On January 18, 1991, US-led Coalition aircraft and ships began an intense and very effective attack on Iraqi military assets. On February 24, the Coalition attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi elite Republican Guard divisions. By February 27, the surviving Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated, and by the next day, all Iraqi forces near Saudi Arabia had been destroyed or had retreated north. The Coalition ordered a cease-fire.

The Coalition offered Saddam Hussein a truce based on his willingness to destroy all Scud missiles and to allow unhindered weapons and site inspections by the US and/or by inspectors from Coalition nations. Saddam quickly agreed to the terms. However, once the majority of Coalition forces were gone from the region, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN and Western inspection teams. Neither the UN nor the US could verify what WMDs remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein Playing Card public domain

On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated intent of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. A significant part of the US and British justification for that invasion centered on Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 truce. Given that Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens, the US and some Western allies took the WMD threat very seriously.

When the US Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the US used its air supremacy, its superior mobility, and its superior training and leadership to defeat the numerically superior Iraqi military. The 300,000 strong Coalition made fast progress against the 375,000 demoralized Iraqi military, and on May 1, 2003, US President George Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq were over.

While the war against the Iraqi military was, indeed, successfully concluded, the difficult process of occupying Iraq had only started. “Peace” in Iraq would cost the US and its Coalition allies—the UK principle among them—far more in lives and treasure than the war did.

Most participants and observers on both sides of the conflict were confident that a US-backed coalition would defeat the Iraqi military. However, coalition military and political leaders had three critical questions on their minds:

  1. What will it cost us in lives to destroy the Iraqi military and Saddam’s regime?
  2. What will it cost Iraq in civilian casualties and oil production?
  3. What will it cost Coalition members in both domestic and international political capital?

Leaders in Washington, D.C. and London knew the answer to the third question would be determined by the answers to the first two.

According to a variety of US polls, on the morning of the invasion, over 70% of the US population approved the action. A general anger over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which Islamic jihadis murdered approximately 3,000 innocent civilians in the US, fueled that approval. Some of the approval was also fueled by the belief that Iraq still possessed WMDs, intermediate range missiles, sarin gas, and extended range SCUD missiles.

The few adventurous folks who targeted Iraqi chemical weapons facilities on the ground with the assistance of Kurdish allies probably won’t say anything except that they were on vacation some place else that month. The Iraqi war veterans who now suffer from symptoms caused by chemical exposure in the Iraqi tunnels and bunkers usually don’t say much either, and if they did, who would listen?

It was never a question that Iraq had WMDs. As mentioned above, Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens. That is undisputed fact. Three conditions of the of the 1991 truce, as well as a UN mandate, were that Saddam get rid of the WMDs he had, that he not stockpile any more, and that he prove he was in compliance. However, Iraq routinely blocked UN inspection teams sent to verify that he was abiding by the terms of the treaty. This obstruction created the doubt that Iraq had disposed of its WMDs and ceased its WMD programs.

While blocking these inspections, Saddam continued to finance “secret” WMD programs in Iraq with illegally diverted “oil for food” funds that were administered by corrupt UN leaders. Saddam’s scientists and administrators, in their turn, stole most of the diverted money while sending false reports up the food chain to indicate a level of progress in their WMD research and production that did not exist. However, this façade was enough to convince Saddam that his scientists were succeeding in developing WMDs, including nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies outside of the Iraq were seeing some of the same overblown progress reports to Saddam, and this created a confusing picture. In addition to those reports, a variety of other anti-Saddam parties, both inside of and outside of Iraq, were doing their best to tell the West whatever it needed to hear in order to get the West to depose Saddam.

Saddam staunchly denied possession of WMDs to the West and to the UN. Simultaneously, he waged an information war against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria, posturing and puffing up his WMD capabilities. He wanted to scare them. He succeeded.

Saddam gambled. He and most of the other oil-producing Islamic nations pressured the West to stay out of Iraq. Saddam thought that petroleum bargaining chip, combined with the threat that his modified extended range missiles could reach as far as Paris, would keep the US from “pulling the trigger” and launching an attack on Iraq. He was wrong and that bad bet cost him a trip to the gallows and the lives of his two sons.

During the Iraqi War, Coalition forces quickly found the banned Scud Missiles but found little remaining WMD equipment. The few sarin gas artillery shells and the nerve gas manufacturing equipment that were discovered did nothing to overcome most of the public’s perception that “there were never any WMDs in Iraq.”

While Saddam and his regime were easy to dispose of, creating something like a “government” in Iraq to replace the old Baathist regime was far more difficult. The US would pay dearly for the occupation process. In fact, “process” might be the wrong term. Much of the US/UK strategy for the occupation seems to have been based on wishful thinking and a strategy of “spend and pray.”

In a live broadcast interview on April 23, 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Nastios said the rebuilding of Iraq could be accomplished for no more than $1.7 billion dollars in total. He missed by a bit. Before the end of 2003, the cost of the Iraqi occupation had increased to about $1 billion per week. By 2007, the costs had escalated to $2 billion per week.

Visitors to Iraq today would likely wonder precisely where that $2 billion a week went. While the variety of contractors, both US and foreign, will reassure us that every penny was well spent, not being one of those contractor folks, I am a bit less satisfied with the results of the expenditures. If you are a family member or loved one of the nearly 4,500 US troops or 312 British troops who were killed, you might be too busy remembering that fallen soldier to wonder about the money. If you are a family member of one of the 90,000 injured Coalition soldiers, then you might simply be too busy wondering about your own expenses to think about Iraq. But even if the money doesn’t matter to you, and the dead and injured are not directly related to you, it’s still worth wondering why we achieved so little at such a high cost in lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to permanently avoid war in the future. For one thing, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” show, we remain involved in Afghanistan where we are burning more cash and lives to prop up an unlovable hoodlum in the person of Muhammad Karzai. For another, the White House has just stepped up its rhetoric against Iran. So while the Iraq War is over for us, questions about how we managed it remain critical.

Even at the time of the Iraq invasion, my greatest concern was that we were likely to invest heavily in lives and money without demanding anything from whatever group that we would prop up as an Iraqi government. My fears have been realized. How could I have imagined such a thing, you ask? Easily, Viet Nam should have taught us all better. Apparently, it didn’t.

While we spent generously and the Coalition troops fought effectively and efficiently, we have demanded very little from the Iraqi leadership to whom we relinquished control. While the various concerns of the many different Iraqi Peoples deserved consideration, we allowed the Iraqis to muddle along and call the shots while we paid the bills. That was nothing short of insane.

How insane? About a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives insane from the US point of view. The view from the Iraqi side of the equation is much worse. The Iraqi government, the Coalition, and the UN have no idea how many Iraqis were murdered during the chaos that plagued the US occupation. The estimates range from 110,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 figure seems wildly high to me, but 200,000 seems possible. The vast majority of those Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis rather than by Coalition forces. Nonetheless, that’s still a level of human loss that should not be ignored.

If we weren’t willing to take charge during the occupation, then we simply should have shot Saddam when US Army Special Forces troops ferreted him out of his fox hole and then gone home. If we weren’t willing to be seen as being in charge in Iraq while providing some stability for a representative government to form, then we should not have stayed for more than the year that it took to destroy Saddam’s forces and hunt down his key Baathists pals.

In all major theories of war, including the various theories of guerrilla warfare and terror operations, one of the leading critical principles is “the principle of the objective.” Without a clear and viable objective in mind, one cannot achieve anything meaningful in a war.

In my opinion, and I won’t claim that it’s a humble one because I’m an opinionated old SOB and I know it, we failed to identify and pursue a clear objective in Iraq. We succeeded within the year in our original objective of removing the threat against ourselves and our allies by removing Saddam. Those who love to say Saddam never posed a threat to the US have ignored history and must not be paying for the petroleum they consume. But having achieved that objective, we stayed in Iraq while presumably hoping that someone in Baghdad would generously provide us with a plausible objective while we waited for democracy to break out. When we left in 2011, we were still waiting for that democracy. We’re still waiting now, but at least we no longer spend $2 billion a week for the privilege.

To be fair, what exists in Iraq today is probably, from the Western perspective, slightly less horrible than the Saddam regime. From the perspective of most Iraqis, life under the tyrant Maliki is far better than life under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The Sunni backed kingdom of Saudi Arabia might not agree. The Iranians are thrilled to have a Shia in charge in Iraq, but they are learning that not all Shia believe Iran needs to be the one Islamic Caliphate.

And now we can add a couple of new factors to the Iraqi equation. Turkey has decided that those “disgusting subhuman” Kurds in Iraq have oil and are therefore lovely folks. Turkey finds itself talking to the Iraqi government in Baghdad less and less, and holding hands with the Kurds more and more. But let’s not forget another important neighbor of Iraq. Syria is in turmoil, and the violence is increasing. Iraq’s Maliki regime is supporting Iran’s ally Assad in Syria.

The US, NATO, and Turkey are in no hurry to start an air campaign against Assad. Iran backs some anti-Assad fighters as a hedge against the Syrian dictator. However, Iran needs Assad to stay in power and remain a major concern to the West for as long as possible. If the West is busy being concerned with Syria’s recent attacks against Lebanon and Turkey, it is less likely to invest the considerable military assets and massive political capital required for a meaningful military strike against Iran. Iran is free to pursue its nuclear dreams.

Interestingly, Iran turned down its patented “death to America” rhetoric this week and seems willing to talk. How much of that shift is a response to the economic pain of UN and US sanctions, and how much is a strategy to buy time to assemble a nuclear weapon, is tough to guess at this point. If you happen to live in Israel, you can’t be enjoying this card game at all.

Not everyone will agree on whether the 2003 Iraq invasion should have occurred at all. Many who agreed at the time have changed their minds. What most of us can easily agree on is that the White House and Congress mismanaged the occupation. If we are to learn anything, and if the sacrificed Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians matter at all, then we are obligated to examine the Iraq occupation dispassionately and apolitically so that we can do our best to avoid such hideously expensive mistakes in the future.

Syria’s Assad has Crossed the Rubicon

By Jay Holmes

On January 27 of this year, protests began in Syria against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Bashar (a.k.a. Assad 2.0) quickly attempted to crush the protests before they could gain any momentum. He was unable to declare a state of emergency because Syria was already under a state of emergency. He did not revoke the civil rights of the people because they didn’t have any civil rights to revoke. The state of emergency and revocation of civil rights happened in 1963, and Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad (a.k.a. Assad 1.0), never lifted the state of emergency after taking power in Syria in 1970.

Assad 2.0 — Contrary to appearances and popular belief, Bashar Assad was not kidnapped by Western scientists and replaced with a remote controlled robot. This is an actual picture of the actual Assad.

So who are these Syrian protestors, and what do they want? They are a variety of groups from culturally distinct areas across Syria. They are, basically, a combination of anyone in Syria who doesn’t happen to be a member of Assad’s Alawi Islamic sect.

Like his father before him, Assad 2.0 has relied on his fellow Alawi sect members to fill most of the important government positions, including military and police leadership. However, 88% of Syrians are not Alawi. Most of the protestors are from the 72% Sunni, 10% Christian, and 3% Druze populations.

Bashar Assad replaced his dead father as Syrian dictator in January 2000. He has spoken of economic reforms since then, but effective economic reform in Syria would require Assad to reduce corruption. In order to reduce corruption, he would have to remove from office the same Alawi officials who guarantee his security and replace them with non-Alawi officials, eliminating that security for the Assad clan. By violently suppressing the Syrian “Arab Spring” protestors, Assad avoided this scary task, but the road of protest suppression took him somewhere he had not intended to go.

On a windy March morning, Assad woke up to find himself on the wrong side of the Rubicon. While the Syrian protestors failed to gain his ear, they succeeded in gaining the ear of the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”). The ICJ did more than talk. They listened. Now, Assad can no longer take his money, his wife, and his mistresses and buy an estate and some social standing in England.

Bashar Assad is, in large part, the product of the powerful Alawi sect, but he is also the product of a British medical education. During his father’s three decades of bloody gang war rule that included a bloody gang war between his father and his uncle, Assad 2.0 had been given the luxury of living in the comparatively bucolic Western Europe as an ophthalmologist.  Whatever pleasant visions he might have harbored concerning the future of Syria, they were quickly banished by the day-to-day reality of remaining in power in that country.

Standing now on the wrong side of the Rubicon with no way to cross to the peaceful, distant shore, Assad has few options and fewer friends. His minority ruling class can count as friends the Iranian-controlled Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the distant Iranian government. Syria had, at times, fantasized that Turkey was it’s staunch ally, but Turkey has now opened its country to political asylum seekers from Syria.

Key Syrian anti-Assad activists, such as Syrian Ba’ath party founder Shibliy Aisamy, mistakenly sought safe haven in Lebanon, and have been kidnapped by Syrian police. Hezbollah holds sway in Lebanon and will continue to back Assad as long as it is told to by the Iran’s ruling mullahs.

Turkey is another story. Hezbollah has no power in Turkey, and it cannot influence Turkey’s friendly treatment of anti-Assad protestors.

The death of Libyan gangster Moammar Qaddafi was bad news for Bashar Assad. With Europe and NATO now free of their military obligations in Libya, Assad can no longer count on NATO nations being too busy to bother with him. But not all NATO nation taxpayers are anxious to burn more cash and spill more blood by intervening in Syria. If the future complexion of the Libyan government is difficult to discern, then any future Syrian government is nearly impossible to predict. NATO nations can’t know what they would be backing.

Hezbollah maintains a disciplined and ruthless rule in southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s puppet masters in Iran are desperate to prevent a secular government from forming in Syria. Various factions in the chaos that we call Iraq also want to avoid secular government in Syria. Saudi Arabia wants Saudi-friendly Sunni rule in that country, and Jordan, Israel, and the West would be happy to see a secular, democratic government installed.

So what do the Syrians want? It’s perfectly clear that the majority of them want the Assad cabal gone. It’s completely unclear as to what they want in its place.

In the short term, Assad will use what he calculates to be the minimum force necessary to remain in power. He does not want to attract intervention, but he does not want to leave, and his options for leaving Syria grow less attractive as the bodies pile up.

In order for the Syrian protestors to remove Assad from power, they will need outside help. To get that outside help, they will need to decide what their vision of Syria will look like, and they will need to share that vision with the outside world. If the Syrian uprising presents the world with a view of Syria’s future that is significantly more appealing to the West than the status quo, then Western governments might be motivated to intervene on their behalf.

That intervention, if it happens, need not be military. Everyone living on the shores of the Mediterranean understands what NATO is, and now they understand how far it will go in intervening to remove a despot from the Mediterranean shores. They also understand just how easily NATO can do that. Syria does not present Europe with the same petroleum motive that Libya did, but there are limits as to how much Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States will tolerate from Assad.

If the Syrian Transitional Council succeeds in forming and sharing a vision beyond Assad’s departure, there will still be an easy way out of the potential violent mess that is brewing in Syria. If Assad is offered an escape from the hell of his and his father’s own making, he might be willing to board that ferry to re-cross the Rubicon. Trying Assad in court is less valuable and less important to mankind than allowing the Syrian people a chance to move forward into the twenty-first century without a repeat of the chaos that we now see in Iraq.

Whatever hopes and visions others might harbor for the Syrian people, only they can form and communicate those visions.

When I gaze into my crystal ball I don’t see the opposition going away. What do you see in your crystal ball? Any questions?

Good Riddance to Qaddafi

By Jay Holmes

On October 20, 2011, the Libyan National Transition Council reported that Libya ended forty-two years of suffering under the heartless, egomaniacal Moammar Qaddafi.

The world was treated to a brief video showing a wounded, captured Qaddafi, pleading for the sort of mercy that he had so consistently denied his people. Fortunately, a young Libyan man in a Yankees cap came to his senses and ended the drama for the mercy of all concerned.

Certain human rights groups are supposedly questioning Qaddafi’s death in captivity. In theory, it’s a legitimate question, but to be relevant, questions have to be prioritized. If my house is on fire, before I worry about getting the drapes wet, I have to answer the question of putting out the fire.

Before I spend any restless nights wondering about the moral implications of Qaddafi being shot while in captivity, I would need first to have other questions answered. I would need explanations about the thousands of innocents who Qaddafi and his henchmen murdered during the last four decades. Also, in the present, I’m concerned with how efficiently we can secure all of the man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that are at large in Libya today, and how quickly can we dispose of Libya’s extensive stores of mustard gas.

Call me a judgmental bastard if you like. Except for the fact that my parents had been married over a decade before I was born, I’d say it’s fairly accurate. The notion that all men are created equal makes good sense to me. The idea that all men and women remain equal, no matter what they do after they are created, strikes me as extremely foolish.

Due to multiple urgent matters, I have not slept much this week. But not all of my sleep was surrendered in vain, and I have only lost a little sleep. How many have lost their lives or watched their children die? I can never know with certainty how many people Qaddafi and his thugs murdered, but two of their young faces came to me in my nap this morning and reminded this old man to get back up and do something besides wasting the world oxygen supply.

The battle with Qaddafi is over. The battle for the future of the people of Libya continues. Old enemies, Al-Qaeda and Iran, find themselves sharing the same fantasy this week. They would love to see an “Islamic” state in Libya led by some criminal posing as a religious leader. For them, the ideal leader in Libya would reject Modernism. Modernism, as in a philosophy or system that incorporates post-8th century thinking and discoveries.

For the comfortable Mullahs in Iran, their Hezbollah messenger boys, and the garden variety “Islamic” terrorist gangs that are all vying for attention today, dangerous new ideas such as religious freedom, universal suffrage, the right to (or even the need for) fair trial, and freedom of speech need to be kept out of Libya and everywhere else. Fortunately for the people of Libya and the rest of the world, not everyone in Libya agrees with that “fundamentalist” view. It appears (at least to me) that most Libyans recognize that the only thing “fundamental” about fundamentalism is that it is fundamentally asinine.

Does that matter? We don’t know yet. For the opinions of the majority to matter in Libya, the Libyans will need to create for themselves some sort of functioning government that takes into account the views of the masses. If they do it (and they may), it will be the first time that the voice of the Libyan people has mattered inside of Libya. I hope they pull it off. I think they have a reasonable chance to get it done.

So other than my very expensive habit of finding idealistic beliefs with which to view the world, why should I think that Libya will do anything other than create a new tyranny for itself? My hope is not based solely on my wide-eyed idealism.

The people of Libya are far more educated than they were when Qaddafi shoved a weak king out of the throne. There is much that we can blame Qaddafi for, and little that we can give him credit for, but we can, in fact, credit him with building a better education system in Libya. Reading broadly is good for kids, but it’s bad for the tyrants that rule the kids who read. Good education and tyranny just don’t play well together. In a sense, Qaddafi killed himself by buying too many books for children and teens.

The concept of death by book purchase appeals to me. The next time you’re at a school book sale, don’t think of it as cash lost, think of it as happy kids and dead dictators. Of course, the trick is that the books can’t just be bought, they have to be read. Those enterprising young Libyan kids read them.

Libya is a cosmopolitan place. The majority of Libyans have an idea of what the world outside of Libya looks like. They know enough about the world outside of the mid-east to know that life need not be all about poverty, oppression, and unending misery.

In a nation of starving masses, building a democracy is more difficult. Fortunately, there are no starving masses in Libya. Libya has already repaired and reopened its natural gas delivery line to Italy. That’s good news for those Italians who were hoping to not spend Christmas Eve sleeping in a goose down sleeping bag. And when Gas flows to Italy and the European Union, euros flow back to Libya.

Gasoline-hungry Europeans are looking toward the post-Qaddafi Libya with hopeful eyes. While I have yet to hear a reliable report on the precise measure of damage done to Libya’s petroleum production and export infrastructure, it is not as bad as what many had feared. Given the price of petroleum around the world, and the willingness of oil companies to show up and make a profit, I anticipate that Libya’s oil production infrastructure will be repaired in record-breaking time.

Naturally, oil companies will pretend that they are fighting a terrible but noble engineering war when faced with the challenge of extracting and marketing petroleum from Libya. I’m looking forward to those cutesy, heart warming, pro ecology ads that they will produce to explain to us why we should demand that they receive Presidential Medals of Freedom, lots of tax breaks, and sainthood for selling us oil. The ads will, no doubt, lovingly explain why we should all be so grateful for the gasoline price increases that will accompany the increased gasoline production.

The good news about the “petro-corporate” invasion taking place this week in Libya (thanks to your car and my car) is that it will leave Libya with cash to spend. If it goes to support a filthy rich oligarchy or another family of jackals like the Qaddafi slime, then it won’t do much to help found a working government in Libya. If, on the other hand, enough of it is used to buy off all the major and minor Libyan tribes with agreements for reasonable development projects in irrigation, agriculture, transportation, housing, health care and education, then that black gold could help buy Libya a decent government. Oil money need not always do Satan’s work. Sometimes, it can help a nation, and the amount of oil in Libyan oil fields can translate to lots of help.

Time will tell. Now, support Libya by buying yourself a bumper sticker that reads, “Drive your car for peace.”

Any questions about Qaddafi or the present situation in Libya?

When the Safe Bet Isn’t the Best Bet

By Jay Holmes

After six months of listening to so many dire predictions of “stalemate,” events in Libya have entered a period of rapid change. The rebel council now controls most of the coastal cities. Uncle Momo’s second wife, his daughter, and two sons are in Algeria. Momo is clearly on the run.

We humans are predictable on some issues. Change, even when it involves the fall of an international terrorist, is scary, and it’s easy to find the dark lining to any silver cloud. Political commentators dread having to say something like, “Hell if I know.” White House spokesmen (all of them) do their best to create an image of an omniscient, god-like President with everything from his sock drawer to distant galaxies well under control.

When news consumers watch a news program they usually want something more assuring than, “This is Joe Hairstyle reporting live from a hash party at the Rixos Hotel. We’re having a heck of a time here, and we have no idea how any of this will end up. We’re asking our listeners at home to accurately predict the future and fax us a brief outline. Please FedEx us some decent scotch. The first viewer at home who faxes us the right information will receive an extra, extra small ‘I Love Meganetwork’ yellow T shirt. And now back to you Susie….” That just wouldn’t work. In spite of any hopeful view that Joe Hairstyle might secretly harbor concerning the future of Libya, he has to stay with “safe bets” to keep his bosses and the advertisers happy.

The safe bets on Libya are easy enough to formulate. For one thing, when a journalist spends a few days wandering by piles of freshly killed people and spends his nights listening to constant gunfire, punctuated by the occasional NATO bomb, it can become difficult to imagine anything positive coming out of a very grim reality. A glance at the history tells him (or her, but don’t make me explain that again) that “happiness” would possibly be an unrecognizable stranger in Libya.

Libya is in the Sahara. Libyans live next door to the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Their history is unhappy, and they appear to be “Islamic” in some fashion. The last 1300 years of history have left most of us not expecting anything like a reasonable neighbor from Islamic nations. When we add all of that up, it’s easy to devise negative predictions for Libya. All of those negative predictions might be right, but other possibilities are conceivable.

There is another side to Libya. Yes, Libya along with other Islamic nations, and along with the United States, Canada, France, and the UK, has spawned radicals that joined Al-Qaeda. But the vast majority of unemployed young males in Libya did not take the opportunity to join Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Al-Qaeda is there, and so are lots of other folks. So far, the sum of the available information indicates that Libya, as a society, is more similar to Miami than it is to Pakistan or Afghanistan, and that it will not embrace any form of radicalism.

The devil, even the vile Momo devil, should be given his due. Between his spasms of exhibitionist hysterics and insane, ridiculous pronouncements, Uncle Momo and his loyal servants did succeed in vastly improving health care and education. Momo forgot what his mother told him. Be careful what you wish for. Your wish may come true. It’s easier now to bump into an illiterate in Detroit than it is in Libya.

Education changes people, and often it changes them for the better. Even stilted, highly controlled education makes people aware of the horizon beyond their own personal misery. In professional education in Libya, the emphasis was on improving science and medicine. Law schools and political science professors might have been required to spew nonsense to their students, but it does not appear that science departments were required to do the same.

In addition to Libya’s vastly improved domestic education system, thousands of Libyans have attended schools abroad. Qaddafi wanted to build a technologically independent nation that did not need to beg Moscow, Washington, or anyone else for it’s weapons of mass destruction, it’s oil drills, or it’s air-conditioning, so he embraced education. His motives may have been partially cynical, but the results have been a more educated, more urbanized, and more cosmopolitan Libya. This is not your grandpa’s Bedouin tribe wandering through the Sahara.

Thirty years ago that might not have mattered much. The fact that Czechs, Poles, Frenchmen, Belgians, Norwegians, Danes, and the Dutch were all experiencing improving health care, better education, and fairly progressive societies did not prevent them from being overrun by the Nazis. All of those benefits did not prevent the Soviets from enslaving Eastern Europe after the Nazis were defeated. But there is no Nazi or Stalinist lookalike nation ready to step in and force Libya to accept its agenda. There are plenty of nations with outlooks that resemble that of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot but they are not in a position to force their will on Libya.

Lots of terrible things might happen in Libya, but good intelligence work isn’t just about finding the negative possibilities or reporting what we think the leaders want to hear. The president wakes up knowing that Libya is a mess and doesn’t need the CIA or the NSA to tell him that. Good intelligence work delivers concise, accurate, and occasionally actionable information to the nation’s decision makers.

Effective Diplomacy is not about sitting at a pool somewhere sipping margaritas and waiting for an ideal ally to fall from the sky bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and petroleum. Effective diplomacy requires that we accurately assess the possibilities and move efficiently to influence and accept influence from potential allies while forging mutually beneficial relationships.

Effective statesmanship is not about accepting the worst possible outcomes and fretting over the future. Statesmanship is about identifying and accepting problems, creating opportunities to overcome them, and creating a better future than the future that would otherwise occur.

What would a cable TV news network have said of those frightened and mostly untrained rag tag rebels when they lacked the good sense to step out of the way of the mighty British Army at Lexington and Concord in 1776? We likely would have been treated to explanations of why the obviously dangerous and unruly New England farmers would never be able to force the British Army out of America. It would have been a reasonable prediction. It would have been the safe bet. For five years it would have looked like the right bet. In the end, it would have been the wrong bet.

Many terrible consequences might come out of the rebellion in Libya. A few likely will. But the good may come to outweigh the bad. I refuse to bet against the Libyan people. When the last of the bodies have been buried, they will continue along the difficult path of creating a better nation out of the destruction and chaos that we see there now.

Sure, I could be wrong. But somebody will be right, and for the sake of the Libyan people and for the world, I hope that I am right, and that their courage and sacrifice is rewarded with a better life.

Can you think of other times when the safe bet was the wrong bet?