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Total number of comments: 18 (since 2013-11-28 16:32:52)

Glen Tomkins

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  • Former CIA Dir.: Trump is afraid of Putin Kompromat
    • There are many lines of evidence that Trump is compromised in his dealings with the Russian govt. But his obsequiousness towards Putin is probably the least of these indicators.

      Mueller's investigation has already, just from what we know publically, discovered that Trump's campaign received at least two sorts of stolen goods from Russia: e-mails illegally hacked, and the value of these e-mails as an unreported campaign contribution from a foreign power. Less clear, but probable and more compromising, the Trump business seems to have been involved for years in laundering money for friends of Putin.

      In contrast, to draw any conclusions at all from the words of a man who suffers from dementia with behavioral disturbance is to tread on very shaky ground. In answer to Brennan's second point, of course Trump is easily cowed by anyone with any power, as Trump understands power. Trump was a bully even before he became demented, and the fact that he demeans everyone else on the planet does not in any way make it unexpected for him to be obsequious towards someone he sees as an equal, or from whom he wants something. He doesn't demean people out of rage at them, but because he can, and treating others like dirt establishes that he is the alpha. But Trump understands that Putin is different from perhaps anyone else on the planet in this, that he has a source of state power that Trump cannot obviously undermine (as he can that of a Ryan or McConnell). Someone whose mind wasn't so far gone into dementia would understand that in reality all the domestic and foreign actors he deals with have power that Trump cannot undermine, that they can get back at him if only subtly and in the long term. That's why conventional politicians are so careful in word and deed, to avoid offense towards anyone. Trump's mind no longer does subtle or long term, but in the case of Russia, not only is its power objectively greater than that of other foreign powers, but it is greater especially in Trump's shrinking mental universe, thanks to all those years of profits and capitalization from money laundering for the Russian regime acting so powerfully to shore up the Trump business.

      Some of Putin's power over Trump may indeed be compromat, but you don't have to invoke any sort of compromat to understand why Trump doesn't try to bully Putin, but instead tries to stay on his good side.

      And if you look at this from Putin's point of view, even if it's true and Putin has compromat that he threatens Trump with, it's not at all clear that a blackmailer in Putin's position would want Trump to be openly deferential. That public obsequiousness compromises Trump's ability to act favorably towards Russia on substantive matters. Repealing the Magnitsky Act, for example, might have been accomplished if it were something that could be done in a backroom deal, but Trump makes it less and less possible to get that done covertly every time he flatters Putin in public.

      That said, perhaps Putin is as demented as Trump, and actually prizes making people grovel in public over getting anything of substance from them. Not impossible, of course, not even really improbable, but there are better and more direct means of understanding Trump's and Putin's behavior than all of this psychological speculation. Let's stick with following the money, if for no other reason than to avoid the impression that the psychiatric speculation is the best our side has.

  • Saudi Official views Lebanon as "at war with us"
    • And of course, no harebrained scheme would be complete without some useful idiots. This would explain Jared Kushner's recent trip to SA.

  • As Trump Goes In: Foxing the public over Yemen and Iran
    • I don't know about this item. If Fox News picked it up and ran with it, by the time they were done spinning it, "coastal dhows" would be scarier than WMD. It's like PT Barnum and "this way to the egress". You can do a lot with words people aren't very familiar with.

  • Nearly 500 more US Troops sent to Iraq for Mosul Attack in advance of Election Day
    • I don't think many US voters, at all, know Mosul from Mobile. And it's not as if the Ds will be able to trumpet the retaking of Mosul on Obama's watch without calling attention to its earlier loss on Obama's watch. There is a strain in the non-thought of many US voters about foreign countries in general, that any bad thing that happened anywhere in the world could and should have been prevented by adequate application of US force, or the credible threat of US force. To this way of thinking, of course Ambassador Stevens would still be alive today had there not been a stand-down order, because the US has forces everywhere in the world able to respond within seconds to any emergency.

  • Louisiana Muslim-Haters call 911 in Panic over Hebrew Sign
    • Yep, If I were an Islamic terrorist, I would leave signs written in Arabic around to terrorize the good people of Gardner, LA, because I would figure that most of them can't read English anyway, so I might as well target my message of terror at perhaps the only literate group for miles around -- Arabic speakers.

      Of course, were I capable of that level of sophisticated strategery, I would probably know Arabic from Hebrew script.

  • Mideast Reacts with Horror: "Israel has elected Extremism and Racism"
    • For Netanyahu to rescue himself from defeat (apparently, please convince me this is wrong) by announcing that he won't ever permit a Palestinian state, and by demonizing the fact of Arab Israelis exercising their franchise, seems to pretty much demonstrate that Israel right now is a one-religion, one ethnicity state, determined to oppress all other religions and ethnicities. Not that it would have been much better if Herzog had won. Likudism seems to have done to the possibility of Israeli Arabs participating in Israeli politics what McCarthy did to the possibility of socialism in US politics -- pretty much killed it. Every Jewish political party and alignment in Israel today seems committed to treating Arab citizens of Israel like political lepers.

      Israel has become like South Africa under apartheid, and it's long past due for the US to start treating Israel as we did apartheid South Africa -- cut off all aid and impose sanctions.

  • Gaza War Devastates Israeli Tourism Revenue, Points to Fragile Apartheid Future
    • Just wait until Hamas gets drones. They're as small as, and therefore as survivable as, the rockets they use now, but capable of precise targeting. They would probably be used to take down Israel's water and power grids, and then it would be game over.

  • Why Oklahoma's Botched Execution is an Argument for ending Death Penalty
    • The commentary I have seen on Lockett's wrongful death has largely ignored this extraordinary document from OK's Director of Corrections, Robert Patton:
      link to
      This timeline of the event requires some medical knowledge to interpret, and there are details it doesn't go into, but it makes very clear two important points:
      1) OK's procedure for the execution was not followed
      2) The execution had been halted 10 minutes before Lockett died
      You don't often see a medical misadventure documented with this much candor.

      The timeline makes it reasonably clear that OK's execution protocol calls for IV sedation (the midazolam, or Versed) to unconsciousness, followed by an IV paralytic (the Vecuronium), and then IV potassium chloride (KCl) to stop the heart.

      Now, this protocol isn't really experimental. Versed/Vecuronium IV is a very common combination to use to initiate anesthesia. And a reasonable size bolus of KCl IV would very reliably stop the heart very rapidly. If you accept the premise that execution in any form is acceptable (not something I accept), but wish to stay within the parameters of the 8th Amendment, then following this protocol would be a very safe way to execute without gratuitous pain or suffering, thus avoiding cruelty, as the condemned would be anesthetized at the moment the lethal agent is administered.

      In this case, though, the timeline makes clear that IV access was never obtained, and much worse, the lack of access was not acknowledged by the doctor in attendance, yet these agents were pushed into the victim anyway. Since either these agents, delivered intramuscularly (IM) rather than IV, caused death, or the unsuccessful attempt at IV access caused death by nicking an artery, Lockett was killed in a way not permitted by OK law. OK had a protocol in place designed to keep it within the 8th Amendment, but it allowed its agents to do something very different than its own stated standards for avoiding cruelty.

      This is not a case of a simple medical mistake, or insufficiency of expertise. You can't always get IV access, or you can get IV access and then lose it, and that means that perhaps you're not as technically proficient as you might be (though it can also mean that your patient simply can't be accessed), but it doesn't mean you've done anything wrong. But you can't be mistaken about whether you have IV access, and push drugs without moral certainty that you have access, without doing something very unambiguously wrong. The doctor in attendance either knows nothing about IV medication, in which case OK should never have credentialed him to oversee the administration of IV drugs, or he acted in malice, and intentionally caused a wrongful death. That's not just malpractice, that's murder.

      This issue of IV access really is the nub of the matter, so let me expand on it a bit. The timeline reports that the phlebotomist couldn't find peripheral vein access, and that therefore the doctor was called in to place a central venous line, and chose one of the femoral veins. Now, success at peripheral access can be ambiguous at first, as these veins are small bore enough that some resistance to push or pull on the syringe is expected, and you can't push or pull with too much force or the vein can collapse or burst. But even with peripheral access, you can tell unambiguously within minutes if you're in or not in, by whether IV fluid will go in unimpeded and without any pressure beyond the gravity behind a foot or so of height difference between the IV bag and the patient's heart level. With a central vein, such as the femoral vein, you don't even have to wait on that test. If blood comes back freely if you pull on the syringe, and your IV fluids goes in freely if you push -- free antegrade and retrograde flow -- that means you're in. Failure to obtain such free flow in both directions means you're not in. There is no ambiguity. In a central vein, such as the femoral vein, you guard against the possibility that you have lost access by repeating this simple test to insure free flow both ways, right before pushing any agent through the access.

      In this case, even had the doctor failed to do this test before pushing the Versed, he had to have known 7 minutes later, when the timeline says he checked for consciousness and found Lockett still conscious, that the Versed had not gone into the vein. Many of your readers probably have direct experience, if they have ever had a screening colonoscopy, of having Versed pushed and being asked to count backwards from ten. Nobody makes it to one, and most people don't get to six. Failure of Versed to have sedated fully by seven minutes after it was pushed means that it had not been pushed into a vein, period. It meant that the IV was not in the vein, period. But the doctor then proceeded anyway to push a paralytic and the KCl into what he knew at that time was an IM injection, not an IV push.

      The fact that Lockett didn't die immediately after the KCl was pushed should have been further unambiguous proof that it had been pushed into some other space than the vein, yet the timeline implies that it took 9 minutes for the doctor to realize that something had gone wrong and to check the IV. By this time Patton was on the phone with the scene, and he was given the obviously incorrect excuse the vein had collapsed. Central veins don't collapse. Even if this one had collapsed, it should have been checked for free retrograde and antegrade flow before each agent was pushed.

      At this point, Patton must have realized he and OK had a serious problem on their hands, so he documents asking the doctor questions designed to establish whether the execution could still be carried out under OK law. The answers he received indicated that the execution could not be carried out under law, therefore he ordered that the execution be halted at 1756. At 1806, Lockett died.

      To say that he died of "a massive heart attack" is to say nothing. He died of cardiorespiratory arrest, which is the final common pathway of any and all deaths. It almost certainly wasn't the KCl that made his heart stop. Potassium is not itself inherently toxic. You probably know someone on KCl as a medication. Administered IM, it would not be expected to get into the bloodstream rapidly enough to stop the heart, and the excess K from a slow leak into the bloodstream from an IM injection would be excreted harmlessly by the kidneys.

      Vecuronium and Versed IM, however, could cause delayed death by asphyxiation. The Versed would depress the respiratory drive, and the Vecuronium would weaken, if not paralyze, the diaphragm. If this was the cause of death, respiratory failure, then it could have been easily prevented by intubating Lockett. The Versed and Vecuronium would have been out of his system within 24 hours and he could then have been able to breath on his own. At this point, the execution had been halted, and Lockett was as entitled to life-saving measures as anyone, and the doctor and the OK prison system had as much duty to provide these measures as they had to provide them to anyone in need of intubation to survive.

      It is also possible that Lockett bled to death from having his femoral artery nicked by the cannula intended for the femoral vein.. It is less certain that he could have been saved in that case by the time the execution was called off, but still possible.

      Now, some might take this discussion to be somehow a defense of the general practice of execution, that it might be done humanely and within the 8th Amendment if only it is done competently. That is not my intent. There is a huge difference between anesthesia, flawlessly administered, done for the benefit of a patient, who knows as it is being done that it is to benefit him, and who therefore consents to its being done, and the very same anesthesia done in the course of killing a victim. People consent to the horrific invasions of their body involved in open heart surgery, and face that ordeal with calmness and courage, because they accept the ordeal as the price for continuing to live. But even Scalia would refuse to allow open heart surgery to be done on the worst criminal unwillingly, as a punishment, and not for any medical purpose. That would be monstrously and obviously cruel.

      The point of showing how this particular execution was done wrongly, is that people like us who want to end capital punishment are simply not going to prevail directly, immediately, and categorically. The 8th Amendment simply does not at all unambiguously forbid capital punishment.

      But people who are against capital punishment can use individual cases such as this to make capital punishment practically, if not categorically, impossible. At least the doctor in this case, and probably others in the prison system, need to be punished. There can be no defense of their actions based on the idea that capital punishment is not cruel or unusual. OK has expressed itself on what is cruel and unusual in capital punishment, and by establishing the protocol they passed into law, they have already admitted that what they did to Lockett violated the 8th Amendment.

      It would seem that even before this travesty, OK had trouble finding a competent doctor to oversee its executions. Take this doctor's license away, sue him, and send him to prison (murder is a state offense, and perhaps OK can't be trusted to prosecute for murder, but Lockett's civil rights were violated, and that's a federal crime), and you can bet that OK will not be able to find even an incompetent doctor next time it wants to judicially murder someone.

      That may be less intellectually satisfying than a categorical ban on executions, but it would get the job done, so it's worth doing.

  • Free Libyan fighters exult in small Victories, as US begins Drone Strikes
    • Saddam's forces, far out in the desert and far from any possibility of collateral civilain casualties, received a much heavier, more sustained pounding from the much larger Coalition air forces gathered against him in the 1st Gulf War, and it did almost nothing to degrade their capabilities.

      When you consider how far the situation of the rebels and their NATO air support is from that ideal, it is even less surprising that none of the decisive things you expect from air power actually happened in Misrata. Coordination between air and ground forces is difficult and tenuuous even within the best militaries, which attach special air liaison teams to ground combat units to minimize the difficulties. Avoiding collateral damage to civilians is impossible unless the battlefield is far from any civilian, because it is impossible to distinguish from the air, from high-speed aircraft, friend from foe, much less combatant from non-combatant, unless there are literally miles separating these various groups of people.

      Air power is grossly overrated. We believe in it for the same reasons that people believed in great and desperate medical cures back when medicine could do very little for most maladies. People need to believe they can control events, even when, especially when, they can't.

      This war is going to be won or lost on the ground. Unless we're going to send in ground forces -- which most of us recognize would spin this conflict entirely out of control as the McCains and Grahams in our own country pounce on the opportunity to exploit yet anouther war for partisan advantage, damn the costs in Libyan and American lives -- it will have to be Libyan ground forces that do the winning or losing.

    • Is NATO bombing govt positions in Misrata? Govt positions in central Misrata, heavily populated central Misrata? If not, I think we have to suppose that govt forces withdrew from positions in central Misrata because the defending rebel ground forces were exacting a higher rate of attrition than the govt could, or cared to, withstand. It had nothing to do with air attacks.

      I see no reason to attribute any success or failure of the opposing ground forces in this war so far to the air support available. The air supremacy the govt had before NATO jumped in did not let them walk into Misrata, much less the rebel strongholds in Cyrenaica. While we don't have the detailed, blow-by-blow, knowledge of what has happened on the battlefields of this war to make any categorical pronouncements, I don't think it at all likely that either the govt withdrawal from the outskirts of Benghazi, or the rebel withdrawal from the outskirts of Sirte, that both occurred soon after NATO intervention, had anything to do with air power. In both cases, the attackers simply didn't have the ground capability to take a major enemy city, and withdrew after making a feint, because even starting city combat would have been costly. In both cases, there was a lunge at the enemy city either as a mistake, or because there was some reason to make a mere feint. Perhaps both sides imagined that these cities would rise in revolt at the approach of their forces, and perhaps, in the the case of the govt feint at Benghazi, the real purpose was to destroy arsenals and depots of heavy weappons and ammunition on the southern outskirts of the city. They had given these attention previously via aistrike and sabotage, and perhaps wanted to clear them out with ground forces now that NATO interventinon made them no longer capable of delivering airstrikes.

      What we have is a stalemate, at least militarily. And the longer this continues, the less likely it seems that the rebels will win this off the battlefield by way of some internal political collapse on the govt side. So we seem to have a political stalemate as well. Maybe NATO air power was the element that allowed the rebels to achieve a stalemate, because the govt seemed to have some advantage in the effectiveness of ground forces. But I wouldn't credit air power with more than that, and I don't think its clear it deserves even that credit. The govt's air supremacy that it enjoyed prior ot NATO jumping in didn't allow it to dominate the ground, and nothing that has happened since makes it seem that the air supremacy that NATO has supplied the rebels has done much for them on the ground either.

      The key take-away lesson here is that we shouldn't expect NATO air to suddenly become decisive. This thing is a stalemate, and the stalemate isn't going to be broken by bombers or drones.

      Not to disparage air power, but it's not a miracle worker, and, most importantly, it's not a standalone capability. Air support can greatly enhance the abilities of an effective ground force, but can't make an ineffective ground force effective, and only an effective ground force can take and hold ground.

    • The rebels in Misrata are almost certainly doing better than those in Cyrenaica because defending a large city in house-to-house fighting is much easier than maneuver warfare. City fighting is also is much more of an equalizer of experienced/well-organized vs inexperienced/disorganized forces, and it tends to neutralize heavy weapons and artillery and air. Buildings provide good cover and concealement, and the rubble that's left after a bombardment is even easier to defend than intact buildings.

  • Al-Sadr Threatens Mahdi Army Revival if US Troops Stay
    • Obama wants to stay in Iraq because scaring the hell out of the American people is what you have to do to become and stay president. Iraq would be too handy in that respect for potential presidential rivals to exploit if we withdrew, and anything happened there. What are the odds on nothing happening there between now and Election Day that the usual Republican goons couldn't exploit as being both an clear existential threat to US security, and the direct result of Obama having "lost" Iraq by withdrawing?

  • Defections, US Withdrawal Point to Political Solution in Libya
    • Well, I'm not an expert on the Libyan military, and even the experts have to wait and see how everything they know about their peacetime military shakes out in the reality of a civil war. I'm sure there has been quite a bit of internal desertion and outright desertion on all hands.

      The problem with the units that were stationed in Cyrenaica may have been, and I hasten to repeat this is not an area of expertise for me, conscript, regular army. In all but the best armies, those with long traditions of military success, there tends to be this pattern of conscript armies, whereby there is a small cadre of officers who serve whole careers, but all of the enlisted are two-year conscripts. There isn't much in the way of long-term service enlisted, no strong non-commissioned officer base. Such forces would be especially prone to just disintegrate in the face of a crisis like this one, a civil war, where some or all of the officers wander off this way or that to join one side or the other, but the enlisted ranks don't think of themselves as soldiers, have no loyalty to the army, don't really even know much about soldiering, so they just decamp after their officers leave. These conscript armies can be pretty notional, in the sense that everyone, bored officers and enlisted chafing to get their mandatory service done so they can get on with their real lives, is just going through the motions. This was part of the paper tiger quality to the forces of the late unlamented Warsaw Pact. They were huge on paper, with impressive equipment lists as well, but in reality nothing about them worked, it was mostly sham. When they were finally called on to do something real world, they couldn't even mobilize under peacetime conditions to overawe the Gdansk shipyard workers.

      The loyalists, on the other hand, or at least their good units, seem to be largely special troops, with mostly career soldiers at all rank levels, more like what we are used to in US military establishments. The loyalists no doubt have conscript units as well that were stationed in Tripolitania. These may be as useless to Qaddafi as the conscript units of Cyrenaica are to the insurgents, it's just that we don't hear about them because no media covers such things in loyalist territory. The special units, the real and only effective Libyan army, seems to have been stationed mostly in Tripolitania, and between that and their being chosen and groomed for loyalty to the regime, the loyalists seem to have wound up with all of them.

      This could all be wrong, of course. We only know what the media is reporting, and I don't have a good sense that any of them on the ground have much of a handle on things. That sudden loyalist retreat from Benghazi, for example, could have beeb forced by an attack by competent insurgent units. No one reported such, but there's no guarantee the media would have known about even a major battle on the outskirts of Benghazi if it were fought by insurgent units to which they didn't have any reporters attached. The reporters seem to be tagging along with these ad hoc groups of insurgent activists, so they only know what they are up to, which usually doesn't end well.

    • Any defection from the loyalists is good news. Perhaps the loyalist cause will indeed unwind politically, and these defections of diplomats and other govt officials are part of that unwinding. But for right now, there is clearly a civil war on, and the firmest conjecture is that this will be decided on the battlefield. It would be nice if the loyalist side of that war would just evaporate, but it's far from clear that it will, and I think we have to still rely on an understanding of battlefield realities, not the defections of politicoes, to understand how this is going.

      And in terms of that civil war, only the defections of loyalist soldiers count. Even high-ranking generals only count insofar as they bring their troops with them. We can't be sure, but it certainly doesn't appear that the generals in Cyrenaica who did go over to the insurgents took whole, organized, units with them.

      I agree that it's not surprising that some ad hoc groups of enthusiastic insurgents who attacked towards Sirte a few days ago were quickly repulsed. What I find concerning is the lack of evidence that the insurgents have anything but ad hoc forces. Not that they would necessarily have committed them to attacking Sirte a few days ago. They wouldn't have done that unless they had a lot of such units capable of maneuver warfare to spare. To me the episode that tells the story is the lack of appearance by solid insurgent units in the crisis immediately preceding the insurgent drive on Sirte. The loyalists were on the outskirts of Benghazi, but obviously, in hindsight, not in overwhelming strength. That would have been the time to let loose any high quality reserves the insurgents had, when the loaylists were perhaps overextended, and definitely threatening the heart of the insurgency. They can lose and retake Ras Lanuf a dozen times without threatening their cause, but loss of Benghazi would be terrible for them.

      Of course, it's possible that they have good units in reserve, but simply had steady enough nerves to not commit them, confident enough in their battlefield intelligence that the loyalist forces were just a feint, not a serious attempt ot take the city, and/or that NATO's planes would have them retreating without takling Benghazi. But that just doesn't seem terribly likely. Most likely, all that the insurgents have is ad hoc fighters, and the generals who defected to them didn't bring functioning units with them.

      If that's the case, don't expect any amount of "degradation" of loalist forces by air power to equalize things. Much larger air forces had a long time to "degrade" Saddam's ground army in Kuwait in the 1st Gulf War, and Saddam still had plenty of tanks and artillery pieces by the time the ground offensive started. We couldn't even track his mobile SCUDs, large, slow, unwieldy things that they were, and tnaks and artillery are much easier to hide. Air power has probably already done most of what it's ever going to do in getting rid of loyalist tanks and heavy artillery.

      The good news is that tanks and artillery are fairly useless anyway at doing what the loyalists have to do right now to win this war outright, which is to take Benghazi and the other cities in Cyrenaica. City fighting will also tend to level their advantage in overall unit quality, as even unorganized, ad hoc, fighters can do well, relative to their problems with maneuver warfare, if all you ask them to do is hold fixed positions in urban terrain.

      Because of those factors, I tend toi think right now that a stalemate is the most likely outcome, at least form a purely military perspective. Of course, the insurgents win outright if the loyalist cause unwinds politically. But I don't see them winning on the battlefield outright. And the loyalist path to outright victory is hampered by the equalizing effects of urban warfare.

      At any rate, if the loyalists are going to make a stab at outright victory, expect them to make their move towards Benghazi or Tobruk as soon as the forces, including apparently some of their good units, that took Misrata can recover and be moved east. The sooner the better, from their point of view.

      If they don't try for outright victory, they will presumably settle for letting Cyrenaica become an enclave, a la Iraqi Kurdistan. Unless Qaddafi is crazy, once they decide thay can't take Benghazi, they will settle for a sort of Kurdistan, hoping that Cyrenaica won't gel as an independent state because, unlike Kurdistan, it has no particular tradition of ethnic or political separatism.

      The insurgents, fearing this long-term weakness, may not want to settle for enclave status.

      The political question for Obama and other sane and well-meaning advocates of our intervention, will be how we would stave off the utterly predictable Republican assault on any sane limits to our involvement. The Republicans will have as allies in pushing for a complete and outright insurgent victory, the insurgent leadership itself. We were able, politically, to settle for just an enclave for the Kurds after the 1st Gulf War, rahter than supporting their maximalist goals for independence and/or the removal of Saddam. Could that forebearance hold now, post 9/11, when Qaddafi actually does have the history of "supporting terrorism" that was absent in Saddam's case?

      In Gates' recent testimony, for the first time in a good while, I have been deeply encouraged by a public statement by an administration official. It is the courageous and right thing to do to stop further bombing by US planes. But how long will they be able to hold that line against the McCains and the Grahams? Those two will unfortunatley have the enthusiastic help of the insurgents, who will be in a position to do all sorts of things to force Obama's hand. Winning a war is hard, losing is easy, and all they have to do is lose battles in a spectacular and impossible to ignore fashion to force Obama's hand. Sadly, it's the well-meaning intervention, however strenuously the administration has tried to minimize our involvement, that will make any insurgent losses impossible to ignore.

  • Qaddafi Forces Advance on All Fronts Despite Bombardment
    • Say that the insurgents are not able to hold even with air support, and loyalist forces start taking their cities in Cyrenaica. Politicaly, how does Obama not commit ground troops to stop that?

      We started the bombing to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, the massacre of insurgents that we are convinced would ensue if loyalists were allowed to retake Cyrenaica. Well, at this point, Qaddafi's vengeance is bound to be even worse, there would be worse massacres. And now, after our intervention, part of the reason for such massacres will be that the insurgents cooperated with us, or even just that the bombing of Libya was done for their sake, in their name.

      So, Obama's answer to people who criticize him for allowing this massacre when US ground troops could have stopped it, will be what, that it was worthwhile bombing to prevent such a result, but ground troops, well, that's too steep a price to pay to do the right thing?

      Not that it will be a simple matter of altruism by then. The way the US electorate has been encouraged and allowed to think about foreign powers with whom we find ourselves at war, is that they are both absolutely evil and a clear existential threat to our very existence. Obama doesn't even have to propagandize in that direction, he can in fact strenuously try to avoid invoking that way of thinking (not thinking, really), and the electorate will still project onto the simple, bare decision to commit any sort of US force, what they think of as the necessary concommitant, that the power we are committing our forces to combat is pure evil and an existential threat. That's what Americans think war is, it's all they can imagine war being. It would not even be as great a leap into paranoia as we make on a daily basis in Afghanistan to say then that we absolutely have to close down those training camps in which Qaddafi, if not taken down, will have a safe haven to stage another Lockerbie.

      If it comes to that, the insurgents losing, the decision will be taken out of Obama's hands if he balks at doing the stupid thing and committing ground troops. If he refuses to scare the hell out of the Americna people over Qaddafi, there's tons of Republicans who won't mind at all doing that in order to replace him in the WH.

      A stalemate would not set us down this path quite as rapidly, and therefore not as surely, but I doubt that we could avoid being sucked in to ground forces even by just a stalemate.

    • I wouldn't count tanks and artillery so exclusively in understanding the military balance between the loyalists and the insurgents. I think that the main strength of the loyalists is that they seem to have at least a core of competent maneuver units, something the insurgents haven't shown that they possess, and more importantly, they use all of their forces, competent and ad hoc, much more realistically than the insurgents. Air power can take away their tanks and artillery, but not those more fundamental advantages.

      Perhaps the loyalists haven't retaken Misrata because of the skill and courage of its defenders. I'm sure that's part of the reason. But it also seems that the loyalists have wisely chosen not to commit their best units, the ones capable of maneuver warfare, to an all-out effort at taking the city. City fighting is a great equalizer, and imposes a leveling attrition on skilled and unskilled forces alike. A less prudent command, or a command that felt more pressure to end the PR hit of Misrata's continuing resistance, might have committed the best troops to take Misrata by storm, and damn the casualties to those troops. The loyalists seem to have chosen instead to use their units capable of maneuver to fight maneuver battles in the East, which they are winning.

      That reasoned and disciplined economy of force seems to have been the general approach taken by the loyalist forces from the start. It seemed, as city after city in Tripolitania joined in the revolt of Cyrenaica, that surely Qaddafi must be done, he must not have the forces to retake these cities. When initial attempts on Zawiyah and Misrata were rather easily repelled, it was possible to believe that the loyalists had collapsed, that these attackers were their best units, and their best had failed. But in retrospect, it is clear that these were probing attacks to which the loyalists committed mostly militia, or ad hoc forces. After these probes failed to recapture cities, they set about carefully and methodically retaking the cities one by one, until only Misrata is left, and all with only minimal committment of their best troops.

      Perhaps they have not taken care of Misrata because of the tenacity of the defense. But perhaps they simply don't feel they need or should, given other pressing priorities, devote to Misrata what it would require to take the city outright, and will settle, for now at least, for a siege. And perhaps there is this calculation in leaving Misrata untaken, that it constitutes an irresistable lure for the insurgents to try to break through the loyalist defense of Sirte in order to relieve the city. They've already had one rebuff just now, at unclear cost, trying to break through.

      Now, it is certainly possible that both sides are playing this game. By this theory, this latest insurgent attack towards Sirte was just a probe in which only ad hoc forces were risked, and the insurgents have their A team in reserve, a force capable of successful maneuver, which they will only commit after NATO air has finished prepping the battlefield by getting rid of more of that artillery and armor whose numbers you pay such attention to.

      But, frankly, unless that's what's going on, unless the insurgents have even more discipline in the economy of force than the loyalists, and there is a competent insurgent ground force that we haven't seen yet just waiting on the proper moment to start the push to Tripoli, then we're in for a very long war, and almost certain US committment on a humanitarian catastrophe scale.

    • It is difficult to speak with any confidence about the outcomes of a military conflict in which neither side's forces are a known quantity. We are constantly surprised by how well or poorly a given armed force actually performs on the battlefield, versus its apparent strengths or weaknesses in the years of peace before war broke out. In civil wars such as this in Libya, we are even more at sea than usual, because the warring armed forces are both scratch forces, two armies thrown together in haste from the sundered bits of Libya's peacetime military establishment, plus newcomer volunteers and draftees.

      But after you make all due allowance for the difficutly predicting this latest turn of events, two points remain:
      1) the loyalist forces have consistently performed better than the insurgents
      2) the difficulty of predicting military outcomes meant that our intervention was always going to be an open-ended committment, because our hoped-for limited involvement, was a hostage to the insurgents winning quickly and easily once we sent in the bombers.

      The betting now has to be that the insurgents are not going to win quickly and easily with just air power assistance alone. That best case, of air power being so effective that it could win this war practically unaided, with only very weak insurgent ground forces, was never realistic. The efficacy of air power alone has always been grossly exaggerated.

      The worst case now is that we will have to send in ground troops just to keep the loyalists from occupying the entire country.

      But air power can be fairly effective at allowing even a much weaker ground force, such as the insurgents now clearly have, to hold ground, especially when fairly large expanses of fairly open terrain must be covered by the attacking loyalist forces to reach the insurgent cities in Cyrenaica. So the perhaps most likely outcome now is a stalemate, in which the insurgents can hold onto an enclave in Cyrenaica under a NATO air umbrella, but the loyalists hang on to the rest of the country.

      Will the US political system long tolerate such a stalemate without dire consequences? Maybe pre-9/11, maybe in some place like the former Yugoslavia that doesn't press any paranoia buttons with the electorate -- but in 2011, in an Arab country? How long until we're destroying Libya in order to save it? How long will we hold off from doing a Fallujah to loyalist Libya?

      This intervention only made sense on humnitarian grounds if there was a fair degree of confidence that the insurgents were going to win quickly. But we only finally acted because the insurgent forces were being decisively defeated, a circumstance that made reasonable observers doubt the possibility of a quick insurgent win. Only a very naive belief in the magical powers of air forces would have produced confidence that just sendng in the planes was going to put the insurgents back on the express track to total and rapid victory.

  • An Open Letter to the Left on Libya
    • I certainly hope that the recent rebel advances indicate that Qaddafi's military is crumbling. But that happy interpretation is far from certain. His forces have been directed cautiously from the beginning of this, and caution right now would dictate that they withdraw from forward positions in rebel territory that they were trying to seize quickly before NATO could intervene. I would not interpret the rebel gains as at all indicative of Qaddafi collapse unless they are accompanied by the capture of large numbers of Qaddafi soldiers.

      The point is that the case for NATO intervention is only tenable if our side wins without the need for NATO ground troops. That still seems an unlikely result.

      If the rebels cannot win without NATO ground troops, there will be the committment of NATO ground troops.

      As your own care to refute the idea that the rebels are at all linked to al Qaeda indicates, you understand perfectly well that US, at least (maybe our NATO allies are somewhat less institutionally insane), intervention can easily swing out of any rational control if there is any identification of any of the local players with the current object of US foreign policy paranoia. The concern should be that the US electorate can be made to see Qaddafi's side as the supposedly existential threat that pushes our intervention over the edge into blindly irrational destruction, rather than anything at all amenable to doing anything constructive for the people of Libya.

      Your three categories of skepticism about the use of military force are fair enough, but they are general and abstract, and therefore significantly incomplete when the particular military forse whose use is contemplated is that of the US in 2011. I am almost rigidly and categorically skeptical of any idea of using US military force for any good, since use for good would require rational oversight, but US military force today exists only as a result of institutionalized paranoia. It cannot be used moderately or rationally. Its use will turn the operation over to direction by the supidest and worst fears of a US electorate that has been systematically prepped over two generations to believe that the most extreme and unbridled violence against civilians is absolutely necessary to insure our very survival.

      I'm not worried about Obama. It is fairly clear that he recognizes the problem, given his obvious reluctance to intervene, and his inistence on minimizing the US role. But I am deeply worried about any US president's ability to keep rational control over any US intervention.

      Near the beginning of this carefully cultivated insanity, Senator Vandenburg famously explained to Truman that to get the needed expenditures for his Cold War approved, he would have to "scare the Hell out of the American people". There actually was a half-way real and credible foreign threat of world domination then that perhaps actually justified some fear, but even then, the dynamic created by fear-mongering often got out of control and prodded us to irrational acts. Since 9/11, that dynamic of terror, the self-terrorization that has us spending zillions on military capabilities that do nothing to make anybody anything but less safe, has become the only thing driving our use of military force. It's not a bug anymore, it's the sole feature of our use of military force.

      Now that we have officially labeled the rebels as the "good guys", and Qaddafi as the man with the black hat, no US president would be able to allow the good guys to lose, even if that means ground forces. And once there are US ground forces at risk, the gloves come off completely on the mindless slaughter of any Libyan civilians caught in the cross-fire, and the US is so much more technically proficient at mindless slaughter than Qaddafi that malignity or benignity of intent no longer figures into the size of the butcher's bill.

      If it comes to that, it really doesn't matter how wise and courageous Obama, or any US president, might be. If he refuses to scare the hell out of the American people over Qaddafi, there are Republicans lined up in the wings to do that with glee and gusto. Xenophobia is a feature for that crew, not a bug.

      I look with extreme skepticism on any idea that US military force can be seen as a tool equally amenable to any sort of use, good as well as bad. We only have this hugely oversized -- compared to any ratioinal defense needs -- military, for one reason; tow generations of institutionalized insanity, 60 years of scaring the hell out of the American people. It cannot be used, unless the use is over and done before the electorate's terror can be invoked, except in service of blind terror.

      So let's hope Qaddafi's forces really are in full collapse, and this will all be over before the Rs can do their thing with ginning up the paranoia. But hope is not a plan.

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