On Making Predictions

Watching the breaking news of the terrible terrorist attack in Nice, during Bastille Day celebrations, I felt a morbid interest as the casualty count marched upward.  After the initial shock on hearing of the news of the attacks however, I skipped over the part about mourning a senseless tragedy, or whatever the current buzzwords are.  As I described last November after the Paris Attacks, I’m over it.  Europe would rather have regular terrorist attacks than recognize why they have regular terrorist attacks.  No, my interest was in the causality numbers, 30, 40. 70, and then finally it went over 80.

“I win.”  And I say that with no satisfaction.

On January 1st I listed these following predictions for 2016 on a forum:

The Syrian government will be in a better position than today against the IS and the other rebels, thanks to Russian help. Also Assad will still be in power.

There will be another terrorist attack in the US resulting in the deaths of at least 10 people.

Oil will be back over $40 bucks a barrel.

Trump gets the Republican nomination.

Hillary will NOT be indicted.

And finally…

There will be another terrorist attack in France resulting in the deaths of at least 80 people.

So with the Bastille Day attack, the last open prediction I had came true, and we’re only half way through the year.  Of course you could argue that the year is still not over and something could still happen to Assad’s government, or there could be a convention coup next week to put Jeb! Back on the Iron Throne, but if I had to call it now, I would say every prediction I made almost 7 months ago was right.

I don’t think this makes me a super forecaster, like the ones being sought for the Good Judgment Project, a crowd sourcing website for predictions.  But amateurs often beat the experts on these kinds of things.  My accurate prediction that the Supreme Court would uphold Obamacare had nothing to do with my (limited) legal knowledge, or the disastrous oral arguments, even though multiple “experts” declared Obamacare dead after the Solicitor General stumbled and fumbled his way through them.  My view was more holistic, and simpler: The left leaning judges will always vote left, regardless of the law or the Constitution.  With the right leaning judges, it’s more of a crapshoot.  They actually peek at the Constitution and case history.  And as Judge Roberts demonstrated, they can be intimidated by media pressure.  That’s why the Burwell case on the Obamacare State Exchanges was easy to predict.  No knowledge of the law was required, only the knowledge that the right leaning judges could crumble under media pressure.

And as for gay marriage, that was about the easiest prediction I’ve ever made.  Who didn’t know that as soon as it hit the Supreme Court, they would find a way to make sure love is love?

I applied the same holistic thinking to Presidential elections.  I called the 2012 election for Obama by the end of summer, and after the 2014 midterms, which was a huge Republican success; I went head and predicted that Republicans would lose both the Senate and the Presidency in 2016.  Again, I took a holistic approach.  I didn’t think I needed to know each county’s voting history, aka Michael Barone.  I just knew that overall demographic trends, media bias, and the increased tribalism of American politics favored the Democrats.

But I couldn’t anticipate Black Swan Events, and that very much describes Donald Trump’s impact on the 2016 election.  Minus Trump, this election would have gone pretty much as I had predicted it would in 2014, one of the other 16 primary candidates would have won the nomination, they would have run an honorable campaign, and would give what everyone would later acknowledge as one of their best speeches when they conceded on election night. But Trump was a wildcard not only in showing how Republicans could beat the media’s political correctness game, but he pushed the Overton Window on Immigration and single handedly threw out one of the Republican Party’s golden platform planks on trade.  By doing so, he changed the calculus on which votes he might attract.

So when it comes to predicting this year’s race…I’m out.  I think Trump could win if his campaign confiscates his twitter account, keeps him on a steady diet of prepared speeches, and Muslims continue to be Muslim.  However all of the default conditions that make me think the Democrats have a natural advantage in Presidential years are still in play.  If nothing else, this particular black swan has made this the most interesting Presidential race in my lifetime, and who could have predicted that?

 

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For Obama’s War Non Policy, it’s Go Big or Go Home

A year ago I wrote about President Obama’s low energy lack of engagement with trying to save Iraq and defeat ISIS. I had offered some suggestions on how Obama could have butched up his war plans to actually be effective.  Of course I didn’t really expect Obama to take any such advice, whether from me or the countless military advisors at the Pentagon.  Ultimately, he just wasn’t that interested and prefers to wait out the clock until he’s out of office and then complain about whatever the new guy (or gal) decides to do.  Of course in the past year, a couple of things have happened:

Everything has gotten worse.  The Islamic State hasn’t been stopped, and it might be generous to say that they’ve been slowed down.

The Islamic State is now a real state. They are now acting in their territory just like any other government, settling disputes and providing government services.  No one recognizes their government as a legitimate government, but it’s there anyway.

The amount of airpower we’ve been willing to put into the war effort has been kept at a low enough level to not make much difference.

The Obama Administration, CENTCOM, or someone in it (*cough* James Clapper* cough*) is politicizing intelligence to make sure only happy talk is allowed to be disseminated.

Obama’s plan to train a “moderate” Syrian rebel force is a complete failure. We spent $500 million to field 4 or 5 rebels in country.

In the meantime, a massive refugee crisis has broken out as a result of the war, consisting of as many as 9 million Syrians.

The Russians are moving in, setting up operations inside Syria to shore up their ally, President Assad.

So it’s pretty clear that Obama’s no-effort strategy is an abject failure.  And it also means that anything I thought could have been done a year ago has washed away.  The situation is far direr today than it was a year ago and will probably get worse before it gets better, which may not be in the foreseeable future.

So tossing my old plans in the garbage, it’s obvious that we need a new one, but what?  The option I outlined last year included:

  1. Training the remaining semi friendly anti ISIS forces, primarily the Kurds but also some Iraqi regular army units.
  2. Fortify and blockade the Syrian-Iraqi border to keep ISIS from resupplying and reinforcing its holdings on the Iraq side, allowing the Iraqi’s to take back their own territory and force Assad to engage ISIS instead of him using them as a pawn to drag us into saving his bacon.

All of that is meaningless now.  The reality is, whether we accept the existence of the Islamic State or not, is that there is a Sunni Arab state operating in majority Sunni Arab territories taken from both Iraq and Syria, and it’s likely to remain in some form or another.

But this is a good news / bad news situation.  Given where we are now, I thought I had come up with an original, not yet discussed solution to the Syrian issue.  Unfortunately, in researching this, I discovered that The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon had already beaten me to it:

“…[A] final option is partition or confederation. Partition is certainly easier said than done — whether the goal is to create new countries or autonomous zones held together through some weak central government. But if the parties do recognize that they need to work together and there is some natural way to divide up land that is seen as both fair and militarily enforceable, partition can work. Conflicts between Bosnia and Kosovo, between Eritrea and Ethiopia and between the two Sudans have all ended this way — though often only after a great deal of blood has been spilled, and often only with the help of international peacekeepers along the various lines of separation.”

Given the ethnic/religious map of Syria, it just makes sense that we should stop trying to fit square ethnic groups into the round holes of artificial states that would never have existed if not for the European map making that lead to the Sykes Picot Agreement, which divided up the Middle East by the British and French after World War I. O’Hanlon seems to envision some sort of federation or confederation, but I think mini states would work better.  Let Assad keep the Alawites, and let the Christians, Druze and Kurds go their separate ways.

The Sunni Arab area needs to be let go.  It mostly belongs to the IS anyway.  The only part of that area that needs to be separated is a Sunni enclave separate from the IS for refugees; and of course a possible staging area for future operations against ISIS.

Of course there is more than one fly in that ointment.  The first one is Putin.  He’s moved into Syria in a big way and appears ready to take the military offensive against ISIS to save his client state.  Before the Russians moved in to Syria, the US had the option of operating more or less without taking the Russians into consideration.  But the US policy of keeping the Russians out of the Middle East, which had lasted for decades, has collapsed due to the Obama administration’s inattention.  If anyone has taken Rahm Emmanuel’s advice of never letting a crisis go to waste, it’s been Putin. So anything having to do with Syria now has to go through the actual military power that is on the ground there: Russia.

The other fly in the ointment is of course the Obama administration.  They are the architects of this catastrophe, due to their inexperience and purposeful ideological blindness.  They wanted hands off the Middle Eastern disasters and this is what it looks like; hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

So for that reason I rate the possibility of actually accomplishing anything as quite low.  Going big would require a major military commitment.  But on the plus side the only areas you would want to take are those areas that truly want be liberated from ISIS, whether they’re Christian, Druze, or Kurds.  Although I’m not sure I would even support that kind of military commitment, I recognize that if you really want to do something useful, you have to do it on that scale.  But  I don’t think the Obama administration has even the appetite for diplomatic action.  Far more likely than going big is simply going home. At least Obama has given a good example of what happens when America Shrugs: chaos.

For those who think the idea of partitioning Syria is unrealistic, there is precedent.  That was how the Yugoslavian civil war was eventually resolved, by; partitioning the area into several states.  The Middle East is revolting against their old, artificially created borders anyway.  That can either be guided to a more peaceful resolution or it can be ignored and resisted with all of the accompanying death and international chaos that goes with it.  But one way or the other, it’s happening.

Update: Since I wrote the above, Putin has changed the game once again. At Monday’s speech at the UN he said that he wants to put together an international anti terrorist coalition to go after the Islamic State. Russia will introduce a UN resolution to that effect, and who can blame them?  International politics and leadership abhors a vacuum, and if the United States is no longer providing leadership, apparently Russia will; on their terms.

Patching up Obama’s ISIS War Plans

 

My reaction to Obama’s speech last week outlining his plans to deal with ISIS started out like most Obama speeches I watch.  I started out with the best of intentions; I was going to pay attention, make note of the high points…but at some point his speech starts taking on a droning quality, and then it becomes a test pattern buzzing…and then I’m watching cat videos on line and what?  It’s over?  What did he say?  For some reason, I can no longer pay attention to the world’s greatest orator.

So I had to read it online and just didn’t find it that workable.  No wonder I couldn’t pay attention to it.  Oh I give the President credit for trying.  I had written previously that the President is making a difficult step; facing the reality that he may wind up going back to the place he was most anxious to leave, Iraq.  But the President thinks he can build the type of coalition the previous Bush Presidents had built, and they’ll trust him on it, when he’s been trashing our relationships with most of the Middle East for the past 6 years.

But not to worry, I have an alternate plan.

The problem with Obama’s plan is it depends on stuff he is unlikely to get; ground troops from other coalition partners.  They have zero reason to trust us for the long haul, so are unlikely to put their own troops up when we are making clear that we’re not. We’re telling our coalition partners that we’re not going risk our troops, but we’ll gladly risk theirs.  You can imagine how that’s going to sit in the differing capitals.  So that only leaves the air option, associated support, and training of Syrian rebels.

This brings me to another problem with Obama’s plan:  training Syrian rebels.  It’s a bad idea in my opinion.  We’re rolling the dice that we can arm and train Jihadi’s that will only fight other Jihadi’s.  Even a military noob like Obama should be able to see where that will lead.

So  what’s my plan?  First, since the beginning of the crisis, the US has pushed the Iraqi government to be more inclusive and allow US troops back in.  Done and done.  If the administration had done this in the first place, we likely wouldn’t be in this situation, but water under the bridge…

 

1)  That leaves limited forces that are worthwhile to train; mainly the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army.  Of the two, the Peshmerga is the more motivated and reliable force, but they could really benefit from advanced weaponry, and intelligence assistance.  The Iraqi Army is demoralized and needs a great deal of babysitting.  Ideally, we would only need worry about helping the Iraqi Army but they are not up to the task of kicking ISIS out of Iraqi cities.  Some of the Shia militias might be but if we add them into the coalition we risk alienating Iraqi Sunnis, as well as the Sunni coalition partners.  The only Shias we should be reaching out to are those under the auspices of the Iraqi military.   So no dealing with Iran of course.

2)  Since the US invasion, the problem with Iraq has been its porous borders.  They allowed jihadi’s and supplies from all over the world to come to Iraq and fight Americans, and later allowed the Iranians to train and equip insurgents to fight Americans with extremely sophisticated weapons and tactics.  Since the Iraqi Army is the weakest link, their best use could be used as a border guard.  We need to secure Iraq’s borders to prevent ISIS the easy back and forth access they’ve enjoyed.  If we can cut ISIS in two the Peshmerga can secure Kurdistan easier and the Iraqi’s will have a more limited force to deal with and it will make it easier to take back the cities when they don’t have to worry about ISIS reinforcements.

3) Cutting ISIS in two saves Obama from the political problem Obama has created for himself in being in a de facto alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Assad is counting on the US taking care of his ISIS problem for him.  However if we secure the border, that leaves Syrian part of a bifurcated ISIS for Assad to handle.  Do we really want to be in the position of saving the Assad regime?  I say, that cutting ISIS in two solves both the military and political problem.

4) There is one major gap that’s missing, and this is the part that makes my plan politically impossible; if needed, we need to be prepared to send in ground forces to back up our Iraqi and Kurd partners.  Yes, the dreaded, boots on the ground!  Although I opposed the initial invasion of Iraq, I get Colin Powell’s  Pottery Barn warning; we break it, we buy it.  That’s why I was able to consistently oppose the invasion, support the surge, and support keeping a stabilizing force in Iraq. So post surge, by 2008 we had a fragile Iraq taped up, the new administration was only interested in getting out and not caring about what came after.  So although Bush was wrong to invade Iraq, Obama was wrong to abandon it.  Now, we’re still responsible for fixing it.

Not to worry, there’s no chance that any of my suggestions will be adopted.  Of course maybe I’m wrong and we can defeat ISIS with air power alone.  But I’m not counting on it,