Friday, July 31, 2015

NSA spied on the government and private companies in Japan. AFP.

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. Yahoo/AFP.

According to new leaks released by Wikileadks, the NSA has spied on the Japanese government and several Japanese companies. AFP. Japan is widely considered to be the United States most reliable ally in the Pacific, though this is not the first time that the NSA has been caught spying on allies. Both Germany and France were spied on as well, and the revelations in both case damaged relations between the countries and the United States. Information was gathered on Japan's trade, diplomatic and nuclear policy. Prime Minster Shinzo Abe was not targeted, but his trade minster, Yoichi Miyazawa was. In addition to government targets, the central bank was targeted as well as private corporations based in Japan. The timing is considered inconvenient because Japan and the United States are in the middle of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a very ambitious trade deal.

My Comment:
Whenever I hear about the NSA spying on some friendly government I get upset. Not for the obvious reasons either. Yes this hurts our relations with Japan and no we shouldn't be spying on our allies. Sure, none of that is good. But what really makes me mad? That people care more about spying on heads of government then they do about the NSA spying on normal people.

 I understand that there is going to be some espionage between countries, even if those countries are close allies. That's just a fact of life. Normal people are supposed to be off limits. Though the NSA has ended their collection of phone records, they are still collecting internet data. And the internet data could be far more damaging to an individual then any phone records could ever be. This is what we should be angry about. After all, being a major player in a government guarantees you will be spied on. Just being a normal person should not have the same guarantee. 

Rant aside, this was a pretty dumb move by the NSA. This will probably hurt relations with Japan. Even worse, it could change the public's perception in Japan. Right now Japan is heading away from their pacifist constitution. That means our traditional ally in the region, may actually be willing to fight with us if we get into a shooting war with North Korea or China. Of course, if the Japanese people know that their ally is spying on their government they could force the government to change course, which could embolden our enemies. 

One wonders who leaked the information to Wikileaks. From what I understand, the treasure trove of information leaked by Edward Snowden has been used up. The very well could be something left over, but you would have thought that they would have released it by now. I checked the Wikileaks site and they did not say where these intercepts came from. 

The obvious answer to the question is that there is a second intelligence leaker out there somewhere. Whoever he or she is, they are taking a tremendous risk and is doing a fairly brave thing. Edward Snowden is only a free man today because he fled to Russia. If he had remained in the states he would be in prison right now... or worse. Still, I question the leaker if he gave the files directly to Wikileaks. They have in the past not taken steps to protect the identity of spies which could have lead to deaths or imprisonment. And more then once have the edited video or removed context from documents to prove some political point. Either way, this is good information for the public to have, and in this case I support Wikileaks. I just wish the leaker had gone with Glenn Greenwald instead. 

Finally, the fact that there is so much espionage, not just between countries, but between governments and corporations, is something that always gets overlooked. Companies are supposed to be off limits for this kind of spying since they are private entities, but that doesn't seem to happen in the real world. Indeed, China and the United States are in an economic war where both sides spy on each others companies to try and gain an advantage over the other side. Now it is clear that it is also happening, perhaps in one direction, between the United States and Japan. The problem with this is that it opens up the possibility that Japan will start doing the same thing to U.S. companies in retaliation... if they aren't doing so already.

And I have to say that I am disappointed that the NSA scandal has officially been on the back burner for quite some time. The revelation that the government was listening into all of our phone calls and monitoring our internet usage did spark outrage, but that outrage seems to have tapered off. We are also in an election season and it is shocking to me that there hasn't been much talk about the NSA scandal from the candidates. Yes there was some back when congress passed the legislation that weakened the NSA's collection capabilities, but since then there hasn't been so much as a peep. I'm hoping as the election gets closer the issue will come back to the forefront again...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Obama's plan to train moderate Syrian rebels suffers yet another setback as the leader of the group is abducted. New York Times.

A Syrian rebel near Aleppo. New York Times/Reuters

President Obama's plan to train moderate rebels to fight ISIS has suffered yet another setback after the leader of the rebels was abducted. New York Times. Nadeem Hassan, leader of the 54 rebels trained by the program was taken, along with his top deputy, by the al-Nusra front. The program to train rebels has largely failed at its goals. Most of the recruit pool is made up of radical Muslims who have little interest in fighting ISIS instead of the regime. Of the initial pool of 1200 recruits, the vast majority did not pass the vetting stage. Of the 120 that did, only 54 were successfully trained. The rest suffered from poor morale due to the fact that they were unsure of their mission and were unsure if they would receive air support from the United States. Al-Nusra has dealt serious blows to American plans in Syria before. Al-Nusra destroyed two U.S. allied groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Haraket Hazam, and captured weapons supplied to the group including TOW missiles. 

My Comment:
I've talked before about how this training program was a joke. I wrote back then that a program that cost $500 million to train 5400 troops hadn't even trained 60 of them. That's a failure so bad that it would be comical if it wasn't such a huge waste of taxpayer money. The program has not accomplished any of its goals and in a sane world, it would be shut down.

Of course, we do not live in a sane world. The abduction of Mr. Hassan and his deputy should be the final nail in the coffin for this program but I am sure it will continue. After all, the main purpose of the program was never to fight ISIS effectively. It was to make the Obama administration look like it was doing something about ISIS. Even if that something is so ridiculously ineffective that it hasn't even trained 100 troops. 

Obama does not really care about fighting ISIS. He has always been a domestic president and he has always viewed foreign policy as a distraction at best. At worst though, he is concerned about his "legacy". He want's to be known as the president that got us out of Iraq, even if it means that Iraq and Syria fall to ISIS. 

As for al-Nusra they have been especially proficient at countering our efforts in Syria. They have been more effective at doing so then ISIS or the Syrian government. They destroyed the moderate rebels we were supporting and now they have countered our training program as well. Though al-Nursa isn't as big or as threatening as ISIS is, they are a branch of al-Qaeda. And the fact that al-Qaeda has delivered some major setbacks to our plans in Syria should be a huge news story.

Of course, al-Nusra always gets out shined by ISIS. Though al-Nusra has had some major victories and control a decent amount of territories, they don't have the propaganda machine that ISIS does. ISIS has videos of them executing civilians, capturing towns and destroying their enemies. Al-Nusra does not, but they have plenty of notches in their belt. 

Out of any of the non-ISIS groups, al-Nusra has been the most effective at fighting the Syrian regime. They also united most of the other rebel groups, secular and Jihadist alike, under one banner and have put massive pressure on the Syrian government. And time and again they have been a thorn in our side in Syria. If ISIS didn't exist they would be our greatest enemy there, but as it stands right now, they are not even a main focus. 

So if training rebels won't work to fight ISIS, what are our options? Well, we don't have any that are good. The least objectionable would be to support the Syrian regime, since, at the very least, they aren't radical Islamists. But that is politically impossible and the regime seems to be on its last legs at this point anyways. One thing is for sure. Our campaign of bombing and training rebels is not working at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ebola cases drop to a new low. AFP

A health worker gives water to a child with Ebola last year. AFP.

Ebola cases have dropped to their lowest level since the outbreak began. AFP. There were just four cases in Guinea and three in Sierra Leone. Despite the much reduced infection numbers, there are still worries that the disease my spread in Sierra Leone. One patient came to a hospital with a headache and was released. Two days later the patient returned to a hospital and was found to have Ebola. As many as 500 people were exposed due to this error. In Liberia, no new cases have been reported. A mini-outbreak recently occurred just months after the main outbreak was declared over in the country. At this time there are no known Ebola patients in Liberia. In Guinea, all current cases are known contacts of previous victims, which is a good sign the outbreak is coming under control. 

My Comment:
It sounds like the long Ebola nightmare is almost over. The fact that we are under double digit numbers for new cases is a very good sign. It also sounds like the mini-outbreak in Liberia is over and the country is Ebola free once again. With all cases in Guinea confirmed to be known contacts it seems very likely that the outbreak is almost over there as well. Only Sierra Leone seems to be at risk, but if the doctors do their job they should be able to effectively track all the contacts the patients have.

If the trends are correct then Ebola may finally be eliminated from West Africa. The next step then becomes recovery and Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have a long way to go. All three countries were devastated by the virus and none of the countries were exactly models of fiscal responsibility before they were hit with the virus. It is unlikely that any of them will be able to get back on their feet alone. 

Of course, there is always a chance the disease will come back. It is very possible that there is a natural host for Ebola. The new cases in Liberia are rumored to be because people ate a dead dog that may have been infected with Ebola. And there is always a chance of a man that recovered from the virus could spread the disease through his seminal fluids. In theory people wouldn't have sex after catching Ebola, but you can say the same thing about HIV/AIDS, and that disease is still going strong... 

Still, it looks like the disease is finally going away. So what have we learned? For one thing, we learned that the international community is not ready for a large outbreak of a deadly disease. The outbreak could have been ended in the initial stages if the WHO and other aid groups hadn't given up on treating the disease when it looked like it was under control. And the international response in general was far to slow and didn't really address the outbreak until it was out of control. Much liek the farmer who closes the barn door after all the cows escaped, we didn't react to Ebola until hundreds were infected a week. 

We also learned that something as simple as a disease response could be politicized. To this day I can't understand why casual travel wasn't banned from Ebola effected countries. If it had been there never would have been an outbreak in the United States. Somehow the idea of banning travel from Ebola effected countries became racist. Probably because conservatives were in favor of it. After all, these days racist has become a code word for anyone that disagrees with liberals on any issue. We ended up being lucky that it didn't cost us anything more then a few cases. Next time we might not get so lucky. 

Taliban leader Mullah Omar reported dead in Afghanistan. Wall Street Journal.

One of the only known photographs of Mullah Omar in 1996. WSJ/AFP/Getty.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar is reported to be dead in Afghanistan, according to Afghan officials and sources close to the Taliban. Wall Street Journal. His death comes as the Taliban and the Afghan government meet to try and come to a peace deal. It is unclear how he died, or even if the reports are accurate. Voice of America is reporting that the Taliban has denied his death. The reports claiming his death claim that he has been dead for quite some time, with two years being the most quoted figure. Mullah Omar hasn't been seen in public since 2001 and has been rumored to have died many times in the past. With Omar apparently dead, questions about who will lead the Taliban have arisen. The movement is threatening to split over the peace talks to end the 14 year old war. The Taliban have never had a leadership change in their history. 

My Comment:
If the reports are true then good riddance. Mullah Omar is an example of everything wrong with the Islamic world right now. His movement treats women like garbage, non-Muslims like they are not human and Afghanistan like it was still in the 12th century. As the leader of the Taliban, he was an accessory to 9/11 and he is responsible for the deaths of many American servicemen. In short, I won't be mourning him. The world is a better place without Mullah Omar. 

I have to say though, I am skeptical of the claims that he has died. Mullah Omar has been a ghost for more then a decade. At this point, even if he is dead, how would we know? Without a body or a picture of his corpse, this could just be disinformation. Omar must have felt like he was a gigantic target, and what better way to get the Americans off his back then by faking his death? And that is assuming that he was ever still alive in the first place. The last time anyone saw him in public was in 2001. He also doesn't allow himself to be photographed. For all we know he died back in the first stages of the war.

If he is dead, then it begs the question of what happens next in Afghanistan, and even Pakistan. Mullah Omar was the spiritual leader of not only the Taliban, but for many other militant groups operating in the area as well. With him dead there is sure to be a power vacuum. A major one, that could further destabilize the region. 

Will it effect the peace talks? It depends. If he really has been dead for two years then someone must have taken over for him, and there shouldn't be any further issues. If he just recently died though, the situation may be more chaotic. The Taliban was threatening to split before the death of Mullah Omar over the peace talks. Depending on what side of the issue Omar was on, it may embolden one side or the other. My guess is that Omar was not on the side of the hard liners that want to continue the war, so if anyone is empowered over this, it might be them.  

The bigger fear is that ISIS might be the ones to fill the power vacuum. They have forces operating in Afghanistan and are starting to make gains there. If there is any group worse in the entire world then the Taliban, it is ISIS, and them gaining power in Afghanistan is not something I want to see. But there is a real chance that they will pick up the militants that are frustrated with the peace process and want to continue to fight. After all, the Taliban seems to be weaker then ever with the loss of their leader, and ISIS has had a major string of successes lately. People want to be on a winning team, and right now the team that is winning the most is ISIS. Mullah Omar's death might be all many militants need to push them over the edge to join ISIS. 

It is very possible that the two way fight against the Taliban and the Afghan government could turn into a three way brawl between both parties and the Islamic State. Of those options, the Afghan government is the only acceptable one. I wonder if the Taliban spitting off into two factions could be a help to the Afghan government. After all, if ISIS/hardcore Taliban get into a war with the peace faction of Taliban, they might just weaken each other enough to let the Afghan government win. That's not a very likely scenario considering how badly the Afghan government has been getting pushed around lately though. They are taking unsustainable casualties, so even if the Taliban splits, they won't be in a great position. 

Finally, Mullah Omar's death wraps up another chapter in America's War on Terror. Long after Osama Bin Laden has died and the terrorist network he led has largely been dismantled, the last major figure operating during the first part of the war has died. The only man left now is Ayman al Zawahiri, and his days are probably numbered as well. And even if he does live, Al-Qaeda is just a shadow of its former self. Once he dies, we can say that almost everyone involved in the 9/11 attacks will have been killed or captured. What should have been a great victory for us is tainted by the fact that the ISIS phoenix has risen from the ashes of al-Qaeda and may rise from what remains of the Taliban as well... 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking say that military AI could be a huge threat. The Independent.

A South Korean sentry bot. The Independent/Getty.

Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and one thousand other robotics researchers have called for ban on military artificial intelligence. The Independent. The open letter criticizes the development of autonomous weapons that can kill without human input. An example would be the "next step" of drone technology, a drone that can kill targets on its own based on its programming without the need of an operator. Such advancements in technology could be developed in as few as ten years. The use of such technology would reduce the risks of warfare and could make war more common. South Korea has already developed sentry drones that are sophisticated enough to track and target humans, but still need a human to fire their weapons. There is also concern that AI based weapons could tarnish the image of more legitimate AI research. It is suspected that AI development could lead to a global arms race and the technology could even spread to terrorists and third world dictators. 

My Comment:
The open letter can be found here. 

What's my take on it? I'm reminded of an H.P Lovecraft story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It's about an evil sorcerer that likes to resurrect dead people. The sorcerer gets some really good advice that has always stuck with me. "Never call up what you can't put down". The sorcerer, being an evil jerk, doesn't listen to that advice and dies after summoning someone or something he really should not have... twice. Needless to say there are some pretty obvious parallels with robotic arms. It's never a good idea to give weapons to something you don't fully control.

I think the objections to AI weapons are fairly sound. The military applications are obvious and any breakthrough in AI tech is unlikely to stay in one country. The idea of something like ISIS having access to drones that can kill anyone who they don't like is pretty terrifying.  Not that the U.S. government having the same tech is all that more reassuring, but the potential for abuse is there. Even if nothing ever goes wrong with this technology, it's still scary that a robot can decide who lives and who dies. 

But what happens if it doesn't go right? The idea of an autonomous drone that goes off on its own mission is not a reassuring one. And there will always be problems with this kind of technology. Glitches and malfunctions happen all the time with our current technology, so there is no reason to not suspect it with military AI tech as well. A rouge AI could do some serious damage and could even provoke a war that nobody wanted to start. 

Let's have a little hypothetical scenario. 10 years after this technology is created, the United States sends an automatons drone over whatever hot spot we are involved in at that point. Perhaps an anti-piracy mission near sea lanes that the Chinese happen to have a ship in? And, for whatever reason, the AI drone decides that instead of hunting pirates, it wants to hunt a Chinese destroyer. It fires a missile, destroying the ship and killing 50 sailors. China is pissed and sends a retaliatory strike against U.S. vessels operating in the area. Keep going like that and you get World War III, just because a robot made a mistake. It begins with a glitch in a drone and ends in a mushroom cloud. 

But that is pretty much the best case scenario. As bad as an accidental nuclear war would be, humanity would probably survive in some fashion. But unfriendly AI could be an existential threat to humanity itself. Basic drones and sentry bots aren't much of a global threat, except for the above scenario where they start a massive war. However, it is possible that much more sophisticated AI could be developed that could take over these drones or just play havoc on human civilization. If AI researchers develop an AI that is smarter then any human, and has some way to interact with the environment, then we could be out-competed as a species. In theory this could be the end of all of us.

Sounds like a sci fi scenario, right? We have heard this story before in countless stories, movies and video games, so why should we take it seriously? Well a lot of people a lot smarter then me think the threat is real and it is at least worth talking about. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking aren't exactly idiots. Nipping the problem in the bud and leaving AI research in the hands of civilian researchers might be a good idea. Either way, letting human level or better AI have access to weaponry just seems like a terrible idea. I'm not even a fan of letting them have access to the internet. There is just so much risk involved.

Such a threat is quite a ways off but I'm in favor of keeping the human element in warfare for quite some time. The last thing earth needs is a robot rebellion, or an unfriendly AI scenario. Unfortunately, the temptation is huge to develop this technology.    

I haven't talked about why anyone would want AI weapons like this. For one, it should greatly limit casualties on your side. In theory, it could reduce civilian casualties as well, as the AI should be smart enough to determine if something is a threat or not. A robotic drone could operate for days, weeks, months or even years without needing to rest, assuming it could stay fueled, giving 24/7/365 coverage. And AI could react quicker to any threat then even the most gifted or talented human ever could. 

Of course those obvious benefits are also the most obvious threat. What do you do if your drone fleet suddenly decides you are the threat? Could you even stop them? And what if a terrorist hacks the drones to change its targeting parameters? These are the questions that need bulletproof answers before we should even consider using these kinds of weapons... 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The F-35 is a huge threat to national security. National Review.

A F-35B dropping a bomb. Official Navy photo. 

The F-35 program is such a failure that it could be a threat to the entire defense industry. National Review. With a projected total lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion, we are not getting what we are paying for. The F-35 is slower then the retired F-14 Tomcat, has less range then the A-6 Intruder and the turning performance of an F-4 Phantom. The F-35 program begun in 1994, but 20 years later we still don't have a combat capable airplane. Once hailed as a cheaper alternative to more expensive planes, the cost of the F-35 per unit is approaching the cost of the F-22, but without the capabilities the older fighter has. The manufacturing process for the F-35 is also full of problems, with only 40% of the processes meeting standards. As the F-35 has spent 20 years in development, our competitors have developed countermeasures. The F-35 is designed for long range combat and is dependent on stealth, hard to detect radar and the effectiveness of long range missiles to survive fights. Simulations have shown that Russia's SU-35S, a 4th generation fighter, can best the F-35 in combat with a 10 to 1 kill death ratio. And the SU-35S is inferior to Russia's top of the line PAK T-50. Both fighters have a larger number of more effective missiles then the F-35 as well. Not only is the F-35 an ineffective fighter at its cost, it is diverting much needed money from other programs.

My Comment:
Yet another devastating take down of the F-35. Read it all. I'm largely in agreement with the reports conclusions. We wasted a ton of money on this plane that would have been better spent on other programs. Instead of a jack of all trades fighter that isn't really good at any of its jobs, we should have bought specialized planes for each role. The F-35 might have been a good replacement for the Marine's Harrier, but for anything beyond that it is pretty useless.

The American defense industry has come off as rather arrogant. We are far too dependent on our technology. Our enemies are not. They have developed their own fighters and and countermeasures. And they know what our doctrine is. The idea that we would win in an engagement with the Russians, or even the Chinese, is not as likely as it once was. 

But what are the chances of a war with either of those countries? Though unlikely, it could happen. I am especially concerned about a conflict with China over its various maritime claims, or perhaps even over Taiwan. If such a conflict were to happen in the next few years, it is not at all clear that we would win. Not that anyone would win in a major war between two nuclear powers, but we might lose more then they would. Even if such a conflict is unlikely, it is still possible that Russia and China will sell or share their technology with other countries, which may be U.S. enemies. Imagine Iran or Syria with the PAK T-50.

The F-35 also neuters one of our great military advantages, aircraft carriers. Without an effective dogfighter, the strike capabilities of an aircraft carrier are greatly reduced. After all, a carrier that has all of its fighters shot down is about as useless as a gun without any bullets. Though they will still have defenses due to the various frigates, destroyers and cruisers that make up a modern carrier battle group, they won't be able to attack in any meaningful way. Unlike the airforce, which at least has the F-22 to give some backbone to F-35 attacks, the Navy has nothing. 

The whole situation reminds me of the Vietnam War. Back then we didn't really have an effective dogfighter either. The F-4 Phantom II didn't even have a cannon when it first deployed to the war. That was eventually fixed, but the Vietnamese air force was able to stay in the war, even though their fighters were obsolete. Many more American pilots were captured or killed then would have been if they had an effective dogfighter. The lessons learned in Vietnam led to the development of our F-14's, F-15's, and F-16's, all effective fighters with a scary kill death ratio. Perhaps the only good thing to come from the F-35 debacle is that when it inevitably fails, it will inspire new fighters that will learn from its mistakes... 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Is Christianity dying in the Middle East? New York Times.

The headquarters of a Christian group fighting ISIS in Iraq. New York Times.
I'm going to skip the normal format for this post because the New York Times article is far too long to summarize like I usually do. It is a (mostly) excellent article though that poses the question that so many in the west have done so much to avoid asking. Is there any future for Christianity in the Middle East? 

I recommend reading the entire article if you have the time. It's heartbreaking to hear how much ISIS, al-Nusra and the various other Islamic groups have destroyed the culture and people of Iraq and Syria. It goes through the history of the people in the region and what ISIS has done to them. And it shows what the future of Christianity in the Middle East may be. 

What are my thoughts on Christianity in the Middle East? I think it is, for all intents and purposes, over. Almost everyone has fled from Iraq and Syria, with only a few die hard holdouts hanging on. There are refugee camps in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, but I think they will eventually flee from there. After all, would you feel comfortable living in the region when something like ISIS is attacking throughout the countryside? The only reasonable thing for Christians to do in the region is flee or take up arms. 

ISIS attacks against Christians in the Middle East is one of their largest crimes, and nobody in the west seems to care. The government never talks about the Christians in the Middle East, and pretty much ignores what happens to them. And the media isn't much better. I've done my best to post as much as I can about the fate of Christian communities in the Middle East, but even I have only a few posts about the issue.

The thing I don't understand is why? People were very upset when ISIS was killing the Yezidi and there was plenty of outrage whenever ISIS releases an execution video. But the deaths and ethnic cleansing of thousands of Christians? Shrugs at best. 

The New York Times article, though a fairly good piece, tried to go partisan for why the issue was avoided in America. Though disappointing in an otherwise impressive article, it really wasn't unexpected. They blamed it on, who else, social conservatives, who like Israel, not getting along with Eastern Chrisitans, who do not. There may be some minor truth it but they make it sound like that's a major factor. 

I don't buy that. For one, the government and the media are certainly not social conservatives. If anything being critical of Israel would make the left in this country fawn over the Middle East Christians. Because there is little the left hates more then Israel. 

If the New York Times wants to be partisan with the issue then I can be too. I'm going to blame progressives, and more specifically the theory of "privilege". Progressive doctrine, at least in its current, pop culture form, is mostly about who is perceived to be in a better position in society. The position any group has in progressive ideology has very little to do with how well off they are but what "tribe" they are. If they are a member of the "Blue" tribe, ie progressives, democrats, liberals, or a member of a group that generally supports they left, like woman or minorities, they are considered to lack privilege. Those who are members of the "Red" tribe, your republicans/conservatives/right libertarians, straight white males, and, critically, Christians of all stripes, always have privilege, no matter how bad their position is.
You would think that the Christians of the Middle East would be less privileged then many leftist groups in America, but because of the tribal war between Red and Blue, the Christians get left out in the cold.You see, to progressives, all Christians are automatically privileged compared to other groups. To admit that in the Middle East, Christians have much less power then Muslims, which is the opposite of the case in the United States, would be damaging to progressive doctrine. After all if there are cases where Christians are getting the short end of the stick, then the idea that Christians are part of the power structure globally is wrong. And it might change the narrative in the United States where Christians are the patriarchal racists holding down the left from creating a multicultural utopia. 

Since progressives can't really admit to themselves that yes, Christians get screwed over sometimes as well, they lump in the Middle East Christians with the obvious Red tribe ones. Which makes it ok to not care about what happens in the Middle East. Privilege theory is pretty much ingroup and outgroup dynamics. To a progressive, Christians will almost always be part of the outgroup, even if we are talking about ones that have been targeted for genocide by ISIS. 

So was that political rant unfair? Not really. The New York Times did the same thing with their idea that the Right doesn't care about Middle East Christians because of Israel. And they made the same argument I did. They said that people that don't support Israel are the outgroup for conservatives, the same way any Christians are the outgroup for progressives... 

A few thoughts on conspiracy theories.

This guy gets a lot of conspiracy theories. Official White House photo. 

I was thinking about conspiracy theories the other day, as one does when you have a slow day at work. Specifically, why people make them. I don't really believe in any myself, but I do like hearing about them and they often have a large impact on the political landscape. Take our president. There are a lot of conspiracy theories flying around about him. He's a secret Muslim, he wasn't born here, and so on and so forth.

 Every president is the target of conspiracy theories but when I when I was thinking about the ones centered around Obama I came up with a theory of my own. Is is possible that some conspiracy theories are just ways to mask harder to understand or politically incorrect criticisms? Instead of saying something that is either hard to understand or dangerous to say, are people just making up these theories to make their views spread quicker then they would if they just said them rationally? I already think that most conspiracy theories are just ways to mask prejudice. After all, saying that the Jews/Illuminati/Muslims/bankers/Communists are in control of everything is just another way of saying that you don't like those groups. 

But this theory of mine is a bit different. Instead of making up wholesale lies about people, what if there are some conspiracy theories that speak to some truth, but exaggerate it and distort it in order to either say something politically incorrect or hard to understand? I think that this is the case in at least some conspiracy theories.I don't think that the people making these theories even realize what happens, but I think this does happen naturally and for all but the most outlandish and evil theories, this is part of what is going on. 

Let us start with the "Obama is a secret Muslim" theory. Let me say right now, this theory is stupid. Obama isn't a Muslim. He claims to be a Christian and he has attended churches before. And since he has spent quite a bit of his presidency killing Muslims, I think it is safe to say that he isn't a secret one. 

On the other hand this conspiracy theory does seem to speak to a greater truth. People are uncomfortable with Obama's religious affiliation. His father was an apostate Muslim, so the thinking goes that he could have sympathies in that direction, even if he never practiced the religion in any way. And Obama's religious journey isn't quite like most peoples. All accounts have Obama having very little religion in his household and for all intents and purposes he was an atheist growing up. He then converted to a radical church with a pastor that said "God Damn America" at one point. Even though he claims to be a Christian, his Christianity looks a lot different then the Christianity most American's practice. And, in my opinion at least, it never seems all that sincere when he talks about his religious beliefs compared to someone like George Bush. 

Obviously, that is a lot more complex criticism of Obama then his religious beliefs usually get. But what is going to have more of an impact? A detailed criticism of how Obama wasn't raised a Christian and only came to religion late into his life and was raised by a Muslim and a Methodist who didn't have faith or Obama is a secret Muslim? Also, by criticizing Obama as a Muslim, you also get to avoid criticizing his church, his black church, which is always nice if you are trying to avoid cries of racism, justified or not.  I think there are people out there that really do believe that Obama is a Muslim, but when they say that what I am thinking is "this person is uncomfortable with Obama's unusual religious background". I don't know if that is a valid criticism of the president or not, but it does seem to follow my theory.  

As an aside, it always staggers my mind that the conspiracy theory was that Obama was a secret Muslim. A much more plausible one is that Obama is a secret atheist. It's clear that for a decent portion of his life, Barack Obama did not believe in God.  It's possible that his religious conversion was not sincere, though I have no idea how you would prove that one way or the other. Given how religious his opposition is and was, it boggles my mind that this wasn't what was used to attack him. I don't know if people just never thought of it, or they had some political or strategic reason not to do so, but it's never really come up. Not that it matters to me either way, and I sincerely hope that I didn't just make a conspiracy theory of my own, but it just seems odd. 

Here's another example concerning our president. Allegations that Obama was born in another country have followed him throughout his political career. The conspiracy theory states that since he was born in another country, he was never eligible to be president. The whole theory is stupid because Barack Obama's mother was an American citizen. Even if Obama had been born somewhere else then Hawaii, he would still be a U.S. citizen.

So why did the birther movement last so long? Simple. It speaks to a greater truth about Obama. President Obama is a very un-American American. I don't mean that in a "he hates the country" way, but in a "he's far outside what you would consider a normal American" way. Think of it this way. What do you think of when you hear the words "average American"? My guess is something like a middle class, protestant, white, person. Does that sound like Barack Obama to you?

President Obama is many things, but he is not what you think of when you talk about an average American. First of all, his father was from Kenya and he married a white woman from Kansas and was born in Hawaii, long considered an oddball state. His parents interracial marriage broke up, and they came from a mixed faith household, Muslim and Methodist, but nobody really took relgion seriously, if they believed in God at all. He was raised in Indonesia, of all places, and in college he was part of a group of people that smoked pot called the Choom gang.

All of that just screams to people that President Obama is nothing like the average American. Except maybe the smoking pot part. You could go on to say that his experience is nothing like the average black person's either. Though President Obama may be our first black president, but it is easy to think that we still haven't elected an African American one. By almost any standard, President Obama is an outlyer. That's true for most presidents, but even among that group there isn't anyone even close to Barack Obama in terms of upbringing and life history.

The facts of Obama's life is fodder for those of us who dislike him. After all, many of the facts of his life are at odds with many people's beliefs of what an "American" should be. Though ours is a diverse and complicated nation, we still have a stereotype of what an American should look like and what their life experiences should be. Obama's experience is so far removed from most other American's that it's easy to see why people don't really consider him to be one. Once you admit that to yourself, it's easy to see why people would just take the next logical step and claim that instead being of an outlying example of an American, the President isn't American at all.

It's still factually incorrect, but it makes the birther movement make a lot more sense. When someone tells you that they think that there is some conspiracy theory about where Obama was born they aren't really talking about if it is true or not, even if they believe it. What they are saying is that Obama is so far from most other Americans that it's really a stretch to call him an American or even an African American. That's obviously politically incorrect and takes a lot longer to explain then simply saying that he wasn't born in America.

I don't think the birther movement was a fair criticism of president Obama, and the whole issue would have gone down better, in a rational sense, if people hadn't taken it that far. I think there is an argument to be made that Obama is too far from mainstream America to really represent the greater interests of Americans. That is especially true for the Black community. But the argument was never framed that way, and it ended up making everyone involved look terrible. Even though the birther conspiracy theory does speak too a greater truth about President Obama, it's still factually incorrect and easily debunked. But if the conversation had been about Obama not being a "true" American, would the issue have gotten any play? My guess is that everyone arguing it would have been denounced as a racist before the issue even got off the ground, and even if it did find a few people to advocate for that position, I doubt that it would have spread as quickly as the birther movement did since it is a much more in depth criticism of the president.

Another conspiracy theory that is about as debunked as the birther movement is the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory. The theory goes that instead of Adam Lanza carrying out the attack, the government either did it or faked it so they could pass more gun control and confiscate guns. I'm not going to spend time debunking the theory because other people have done a better job of doing so. But I will say that the fact that federal gun control efforts failed and failed hard after the shooting, and are continuing to fail hard outside of all but the bluest of blue states, that if it was a conspiracy theory to take away our guns, it failed miserably.

Again though, the theory does invoke a greater truth. Namely, there are elements in this country that want to ban guns completely and they are willing to lie and do terrible things to do so. Of course, the murder of children is not one of those things, but the media radically distorts the truth about gun violence in this country to the point you would think that mass shooting are common. They aren't and when they do happen they only rarely involve so called assault weapons, but you would never know that if you listened to the liberal media.

It goes beyond just lying though. I think that there is a very politically incorrect message, which i'd argue is true, that the theory helps cover up. It's the idea that the people advocating for and enforcing gun control are capable of great evil. It's almost never politically correct to just say that your opponents are evil, but in this case I think a lot of people think it. And once you do the conspiracy theory makes sense. After all, if you think gun control and the people that advocate it are generally evil it kind of makes sense to think that they would be capable of doing something else that is completely irredeemably evil, like killing a bunch of kids to score political points.

It's not like the government hasn't killed people over gun laws before. After all, Ruby Ridge, Waco and Fast and Furious all did happen and were all, fundamentally, about guns. It looked like the Bundy Ranch standoff was heading that way too before everyone decided to talk about racism instead. That was about guns too and there were many on the left that were salivating at the possibility of the standoff ending in bloodshed. Pointing these facts out is not only very politically incorrect, it's a good way to make your way onto a watch-list, but I do think it is true that some times that the government puts its morality aside to when dealing with guns. And the media has gone as far as to release the names and addressees of gun owners, putting them at great risk for violent crime, just to punish them for being gun owners in a blue state.

Once you learn about some of the terrible things gun control advocates have done,  it isn't much of as stretch to say that the government and gun control supporters will do anything to ban guns, even killing a bunch of children. And when you do it and people buy into it, it makes your enemies seem even more irrational and evil then they are by themselves

But this conspiracy theory is even more damaging then the birther one because it proves too much. After all it's one thing to point out that sometimes people die when the government goes nuts about guns. It's a completely different thing to accuse them of killing a bunch of children, on purpose, with a greater goal to ban guns completely. It makes gun rights supporters, even people like me who think the conspiracy theory is insane, look completely bonkers and damages our credibility.

I think if there is anything to be learned from these kinds of conspiracy theories is that you should just tell the truth. If you are uncomfortable about Obama because he isn't like you, just say it, don't make a conspiracy up about him. Don't like gun politics in this country? Make a rational argument, and don't make up a stupid theory that doesn't even sound plausible, even if it does speak to a greater truth.

In a way it makes sense to use these conspiracy theories to criticize people you don't like. After all, many people did not like Obama but were unwilling or unable to vocalize why. Giving them a soundbite helps spread criticism like wildfire. But it always comes back to bite you in the end. Once the conspiracy theory is revealed to be false, then you, and everyone who thinks like you, looks like an idiot.

I don't think any of this is done with any goal though. It just happens naturally, and if more people recognized that many conspiracy theories are just people trying to find a socially acceptable or easy to understand way to criticize their enemies, perhaps the more rational among us can actually debate the facts while ignoring the noise. Sure, some conspiracy theories are just actual hate dressed up as a debate, but many of them are based in some kind of greater truth. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Turkey joins the war against ISIS, sending airstrikes to Syria and conducting mass arrests at home. Reuters

A pair of ambulances leaving from a Turkish border station that came under ISIS attack. Yahoo/Reuters. 

Turkey has joined the fight against ISIS, sending airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and conducting large anti-terror campaigns at home. Reuters. Turkey has also agreed to let the United States use Turkish airbases to launch bombers from. The change in policy comes after a suicide bombing that killed 32 people in Suruc and a border clash that saw one Turkish soldier and one ISIS fighter dead. Three Turkish F-16's stuck the Syrian side of the border, destroying two ISIS bases and an assembly point. This is the first time Turkey has conducted airstrikes in Syria. As the airstrikes were going on, massive raids were conducted against ISIS cells located in Turkey. 250 people were arrested in a massive, country wide, raid that involved over 5000 officers. In Istanbul alone, over 100 locations were raided. The move has been called by the Turkish government as a switch between a passive defensive strategy to a more offensive one. 

My Comment:
I said a couple of days ago that bombing Turkey was a major mistake for ISIS. I predicted that it might draw Turkey into the war. Flash forward a few days and it looks like I was right. This has huge negative implications for ISIS, and it may even cost them the war. 

First, Turkey has a formidable military and can do real harm to ISIS fighters. They have modern equipment and seem to be quite apt at conducting airstrikes. Although I doubt Turkey will deploy ground forces, for the time being at least, their entry into the air war will cause more attrition for ISIS forces. It won't be a deathblow or anything, but it will hurt them.

Secondly, and far more seriously, it will cause Turkey to clamp down on their borders. This is incredibly bad for ISIS because Turkey is the pipeline for ISIS recruits and supplies. If you look at any of the various maps showing where ISIS has control, you can see that the largest uncontrolled border is with Turkey. With that border shut down, ISIS will have an extremely difficult time getting troops and weapons into areas they control. Sure, ISIS likes to capture weapons form their enemies and recruit locally, but cutting off outside sources might spell their doom. 

Finally, these raids inside of Turkey may have greatly disrupted their plans and logistics in the country. My guess that many of the people that were arrested were not militants, but facilitators and smugglers, that work to get recruits and supplies across the border. Once gone, these people will be very hard for ISIS to replace. 

So why did ISIS do it? My guess is because their ideology leaves them no choice. Even though Turkey wasn't really their enemy, they still viewed them as infidels who weren't following Islam correctly. Turkey is fairly secular, by middle eastern standards at least, and I doubt ISIS approves of the way they run their country. Since ISIS seems bound and determined to fight all people that don't follow their strict sect of Sunni Islam, it isn't really surprising. But it was the wrong move to make strategically. 

If there is any good news from this, it shows that ISIS is essentially doomed. No country can survive if they make an enemy out of everyone else in the region. Even a country with a military as strong as the United States would have a difficult time fighting everyone else. And ISIS isn't anywhere near as powerful. Without allies, or even friendly countries to help them, they will have to fall eventually. The question is now how long will they last and how many people will they take with them when they go.  

Turkey has always been far too lenient and disinterested in fighting ISIS. And for good reason as well. Until very recently ISIS spent much of their time killing enemies of Turkey. Turkey has no love for the Syrian regime and would love to see Al-Assad in one of ISIS's execution videos. They also loved the fact that ISIS was killing Kurds wholesale. I am convinced that Turkey would have never joined the war if ISIS hadn't attacked them first. Why fight when your enemies are killing each other for you? 

Now that Turkey is facing a direct threat, the question now becomes how involved with the Syrian civil war will Turkey get? I see a couple of options. First, they could do what they are doing now. Airstrikes against any ISIS targets that get too close to the border and massive police raids inside the country. Involvement in the actual war would be limited, much like other partners in the anti-ISIS coalition. 

The second option is a ground invasion. I think that this is possible, though not very likely. After all, Turkey does not want to risk their troops in the fight against ISIS. But I fear that Turkey would use the threat of ISIS as an excuse to fight who they really want to fight in Syria. That would be the Kurds and, to a lesser extent, the Syrian regime. 

Turkey views an independent Kurdish homeland as an extensional and political threat.  Turkey has a large and somewhat volatile population of Kurds and the fear is that any independent Kurdish state would inspire rebellion in Turkey. Turkey won't allow that to happen, so I think there is a real chance that they will use these attacks as an excuse to destroy and demoralize any Kurds that happen to be in the area. They will claim to be fighting ISIS but what their real goal will be preventing any Kurdish independence movement from getting momentum. 

If that ends up happening that Syria will become even more of a bloodbath then it is now. If Turkey joins the ground war they will be fighting all other factions except perhaps the secular rebels and non-ISIS Jihadis. I've said it before, but Syria is the war that everyone came to. And now one more country has shown up to the party...  

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ukraine is having problems with its ultra-nationalists. Hundreds of Right Sector members protest in Kiev. AP

Ultra-nationalist Right Sector members protesting in Kiev. Yahoo/AP.

Hundreds of far-right nationalist members of the Right Sector group in Ukraine are protesting against the government in Kiev. AP. The Right Sector was part of the original revolution and have been fighting against the pro-Russian rebels in the East. But their extremist views and actions have put them at odds with the government. The latest dust up comes after two right sector men were killed in an attack on local police in the Western city of Mukacheve. The rest of the men fled into the woods where they have been in a tense standoff with police since the shooting. The group has also been accused of taking civilians prisoners and torturing them. For their part, Right Sector is demanding that Petro Poroshenko be impeached and that militia groups should have their rights carry arms formally recognized. They also demand that the government declare martial law. 

My Comment:
I'll come out and say it. Right Sector are basically Nazis. That isn't Goodwin's law, that's just what their ideology most matches up with. They are more nationalist then fascist, but it is clear that they are very far to the right, even for someone like me. Unlike most nationalist/fascist/far right groups, their targets aren't immigrants or minorities. It's Russia and Russians.  

As a matter of fact, the influence of Right Sector and other Ukrainian nationalist groups, is what set off the rebellion in the East. They went out of their way to antagonize the Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East by banning their language and denigrating their culture. Ultra-nationalist groups also prevented any kind of federal settlement between the pro-Russian rebels and the government in Kiev. 

In short these are not good people. And it is amazing to me that there could be neo-Nazis in Ukraine of all places. The Nazis did terrible things to Ukraine (and Russia for that matter). If the Nazi's had won, there wouldn't be any Ukrainians left. It just boggles my mind that there would be anyone that would follow that ideology in Ukraine. It would be like finding a neo-Nazi party in Israel! 

Still, the influence the Right Sector, and other far right groups like the Azov battalion, can't be understated. They were at the front lines throughout the war with the rebels and might be responsible for keeping the rebels from an outright victory. They also are fairly powerful militarily, and could be a large threat.

There is even the possibility that the Right Sector could start a second rebellion against the Kiev government. It's clear they aren't happy with the way the government is acting and they have the troops and weapons. I don't think they quite have the numbers to take over the country, but they could do what the rebels in the east did and carve out their own territory. I don't think they would succeed because they wouldn't have the Russians backing them up, but they could cause a lot of chaos and death before they were defeated. 

I do have to say that I respect their views on gun rights. Not for the reasons that they do mind you, but right now I hope Ukranians civilians have access weapons. After all, if a bunch of neo-Nazis popped up in America and were organizing into large paramilitary organizations and had a major influence in the government, I'd want the rest of the people to have guns to fight them with.

I've said before that I have always  been uncomfortable with the United States working with the Ukrainians because of these far right groups. The fear is that our trainers haven't had their trainees properly vetted, and we could be training neo-Nazis by mistake. I don't know if that is happening, but if it is the case, it's one of the dumber moves the American government has ever pulled. Especially since the only reason we are in Ukraine in the first place is to giver the middle finger to Vladimir Putin... 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

ISIS is blamed for a suicide bombing in Turkey. New York Times.

Turkish crime scene investigators examining the scene of the bombing. New York Times/European Pressphoto Agency. 

A suicide bombing in the town of Surac, Turkey, killed at least 30 people and wounded 100 more and is being blamed on ISIS. New York Times. Turkey's Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, claimed that ISIS was behind the attack. If true, it will be the first time ISIS has attacked Turkey. The bombing comes after a crackdown on Islamic groups in Turkey and may be in retaliation for a string of arrests and the censorship of Jihaidi websites. Turkey is also considering taking a more active role in the war against ISIS, which could also cause retaliation. The bombing occurred at a rally between Kurds and Turks discussing the recent events at the Syrian border town of Kobani. 

My Comment:
I've checked a bit more into this and it sounds like the victims of the attack were far leftist socialists who were going to Kobani to help fix the city. And it also sounds like the suicide bomber was a woman or a man dressed as a woman. ISIS has also taken credit for the attack, so it seems like they are the ones that were responsible. 

This is a major escalation in the war against ISIS. Until now Turkey has been largely unharmed by the war in Syria. They had a major influx of refugees, of course, but until now almost all the killing has been across the border. 

I'm not sure this was a very good idea for ISIS. Whatever gains they get from killing the people that were trying to help Kobani, will be offset by the Turkish response to this. There is a real chance that Turkey could join U.S. airstrikes. If this attack is followed up by more attacks, they could even send in ground troops. There is also a very good chance the pipeline of recruits and supplies, that ISIS depends on, could be cut off. 

Until now Turkey has been a lukewarm partner in the war against ISIS. They have largely ignored the conflict against ISIS and have spent much more time supporting the rebels fighting against the Assad government of Turkey. When ISIS laid siege to Kobani, it took a very long time for Turkey to allow Iraqi Kurds to fight in the city. Turkey has always been more worried about the Kurds trying to gain independence then it has been for ISIS.

It also seems like ISIS is greatly expanding their ability to strike in other countries. ISIS has also struck in other countries where they had a small or non-existent presence in recently, such as in Kuwait and Afghanistan. It now seems that they are expanding throughout the middle east.  I am guessing that ISIS has a few cells operating in Turkey. They would have to, just for the logistical reasons. After all, ISIS recruits and supplies often cross into Syria via the Turkish border. But now it seems like they are going to have active terrorist operations. Given how close ISIS's base of operations is to Turkey it is surprising that it took this long for them to set something up.  

The question now is if this was just a one-off attack or the start of a new campaign in Turkey for ISIS militants. I'm guessing that this is just the beginning. Turkey is going to be brought into the Syrian civil war because of this. Perhaps now they will focus more on ISIS and less on the Assad regime. 

My thoughts on Donald Trump's presidential run...

Donald Trump at an event in Iowa. ABC News/AP.

As much as I hate to talk about the candidacy of Donald Trump, he is currently leading in the polls. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump has 24% of the vote among registered Republicans and right leaning independents. His closest competitors, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, have 13% and 12% with all other candidates in the single digits. 

So what on earth does this mean? I don't consider Trump to be a serious candidate, so I am very hesitant to talk about him. But it seems like he may very well make a decent run on the presidency. He's polling very well in such a crowded race and he is completely dominating the media coverage. 

What do I think of him? Well, I'll go into some pros and cons for supporting Trump. These are written based on my position as a libertarian leaning Republican. 

-He isn't politically correct. He says whatever he wants and never apologizes if he offends someone. In spite of myself I have to say that is incredibly refreshing. Unlike Martin O'Malley, he would never apologize for saying something as innocuous as "all lives matter". I hate political correctness, so if there is anything positive about Trumps campaign it is this. I just wish everyone else would follow his lead and stop letting the authoritarian left get away with the hecklers veto. 

-He is talking about issues that nobody else is willing to talk about. Would immigration even be an issue if he hadn't brought it up? Neither party wants to talk about immigration. Both Democrats and Republicans want Latino votes and they also both have business owners who want more immigrants in the country. That guarantees that nothing will ever be done about the issue. At least with Trump there is a conversation, however low quality it may be. 

-He is very wealthy which should make him less dependent on fundraising from special interest groups. Trump should also be very hard to bribe. 

-Trump seems to be halfway decent at pissing off Democrats. He isn't the best "troll" candidate, that would still be Scott Walker, but he does seem to rub the powers that be the wrong way. Admittedly this isn't a positive thing for everyone that is reading this but I do like a good troll candidate. Half the fun of voting for Scott Walker when he was running for governor was knowing that I was making people mad by doing so. 

-He has no foreign policy experience whatsoever. He doesn't have much in the way of political experience either, but given how crazy the world is right now, it probably isn't a good idea to vote for someone who has no idea how warfare works. 

-Trump seems to be telling people what they want to hear, and not want he can actually deliver on. His position on illegal immigration is wildly popular and not held by any other mainstream candidate. It's pure populism, and populism always makes me nervous. It's the same thing with Bernie Sanders, but instead of free college and other socialist programs, it's kicking out all the immigrants. Regardless what you think of those things as goals, how on earth is Trump (and Sanders for that matter) going to accomplish his goals with both parties in congress fighting him all the way? It's wishful thinking at best and a cynical attempt at appealing to nativism at worst. 

-I don't trust his Republican credentials. At the very least he is not a fan of gun rights and has supported gun control in the past. He stated back in 2000 in his book that he supported the "assault weapon" ban and wanted longer waiting periods for guns. That doesn't sound like someone who supports gun rights to me. 

-If he fails to get the nomination he may rip the party apart. I have heard rumors that he is considering running as an independent, and if that happens he will give the presidency to Hillary Clinton, unless the unthinkable happens and Bernie Sanders runs as an independent as well, splitting the Democratic vote. Even if that doesn't happen though, he is drawing attention away from candidates that stand a better chance at beating Clinton in the actual election. 

-There is a real chance of him turning the presidency into a reality show if he gets elected. He's a showman, not a politician. If he gets elected I suspect he would spend more time playing to the cameras then actually doing anything presidential.

-He was utterly wrong about John McCain not being a hero. As much as I disagree with McCain on political issues, he wartime service was exemplary. I really can't understand how anyone could say he wasn't a hero, unless they either were people completely opposed to the military or follow the old Japanese bushido code of never surrendering even if you are completely incapable of fighting. I mean what did Trump expect McCain to do after he crashed his plane and was drowning in a lake? Pull out a pistol and shoot himself in the head? McCain did the best he could to under the circumstances and if I had been in his position I would be proud of myself if I had conducted myself half as well as McCain did. 

-I, personally, have very little idea where Trump stands on the issues. For example, I am very concerned about the NSA surveillance scandal. I have a decent idea of where the candidates stand on the issue, but I have no idea where Trump stands. There are a few people in that post that I wasn't able to find anything on, but I at least had an idea of where they were likely to fall on. I have no such clues for Trump. He could go either way, and my guess is that he would go wherever the winds were blowing. And that's true for pretty much any issue as well. I have no idea if he identifies with the libertarian wing of the Republican party or the social conservatives or if he is even a neo-conservative. He's flip flopped on abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and tax rates for the wealthy.I think he just says what he thinks people want to hear. That's not just a problem with Trump, it's true for every candidate to some degree, but it seems especially bad from him. 

-I'm half convinced that there is some kind of conspiracy going on. It's no secret that Trump is friends with Bill and Hilary Clinton and he has given money to their foundation in the past. Though it is unlikely, it is possible that his entire candidacy is just a stupid plot to get Hilary Clinton elected. Admittedly, this is tinfoil hat territory here, but it almost seems like it is possible right? 

So to summarize, I kind of understand why Trump is popular. He is telling people what they want to hear and doing it in a way that says he won't kowtow to anyone. There's an obvious appeal there. But other then that I don't see much in the way of substance. And I don't think he is anywhere near popular enough to beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. 

In my own personal rankings he is about as low as he can get. The only guy I like less in the Republican field is Chris Christie. Against the Democrats, I don't really see him being all that better then Clinton or O'Malley, but I do think Bernie Sanders is slightly ahead of him for me. I'm no fan of Sanders, but at least I can tell he has convictions and relatively consistent beliefs. I don't see myself voting for Trump unless it comes down to just him and Chris Christie. 

And, as always, it pays to analyze the populist candidate. So many times have the incompetent or the corrupt ridden a wave popular support, just by promising people what they wanted to hear. Our current president, a huge failure in my book, did the exact same thing back in 2008. We paid the price for that and we could again. Trump could very well be Obama 2.0 and I would really rather avoid that...

EDIT: I just had to photoshop the picture of Trump...

Monday, July 20, 2015

ISIS takes next step in developing effective chemical weapons. New York Times.

An 120mm mortar shell modified to carry chlorine. New York Times/Conflict Armament Research/Sahan Research.

ISIS has stepped up their efforts to develop chemical weapons and have deployed mortar rounds modified to carry chlorine. New York Times. In the past few weeks there have been three reports of chemical attacks by ISIS on Kurds in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has dabbled in chlorine attacks for quite sometime, but in the past they used suicide bombings and IED's. The ability to fire mortars is a large step up in their abilities. Near Mosul, ISIS launched one of their home made shells at Kurdish positions. The shell failed to explode allowing it to be recovered relatively intact, but it still sickened several Kurdish fighters. Amazingly, the shell failed to explode because someone forgot to put a fuse into it. In Syria, near Hasakah and Tel Brak, ISIS launched several mortar shells or small rockets filled with a re-purposed agricultural chemical phosphine. 

My Comment:
I've talked about how ISIS was using chemical weapons before. Back then, ISIS used a car bomb and loaded it up with chlorine gas. That attack wasn't all that effective but it did demonstrate that ISIS was trying to learn how to use chemical weapons. It was a disturbing development back then, but these new reports are even more worrying. They seem to have refined their techniques and tactics. 

This is a major step up in the capabilities of ISIS. Using mortar rounds like this greatly increases the danger to their enemies, especially since almost nobody in the Middle East has gas masks handy. The ability to hit their enemies from a distance without having to waste a suicide bomber is quite an advantage. And other then the Syrian government, nobody else in the region has much recent experience with chemical weapons. Iraq, of course, had large stockpiles of chemical weapons at one point, but most of their knowledge in how to combat them has been lost over time. 

ISIS will be able to use these chemical weapons as a way to effectively harass their enemies. And if the reports of ISIS having gas masks is true, they could even use these chemical weapons as another way, along with massive car bombings, to weaken defenses before an attack. In both cases, chemical weapons will have a larger psychological effect then explosives alone. Chemical weapons are terrifying, especially when you don't have any way to protect yourself against them. They can also be used as an area denial tactic because many of these chemicals linger for quite some time. 

It seems like ISIS is still trying to figure out how to make these weapons work properly though. In the Iraq attack, they didn't even remember to put a fuse into their shell, which is kind of a huge mistake. That alone shows me that they are learning through trial and error. In the Syria attacks, it seemed like their shells were too thick to be an effective chemical weapon. Of course, even a poorly designed chemical warhead is a major threat. Even though the warhead in Iraq didn't explode it still managed to sicken several people. It goes to show though, how dangerous these weapons could be once ISIS gets them to work properly. 

As time goes by, ISIS may very well refine their techniques. Once they do so, chemical weapons, even crude ones, will greatly change the way the war against ISIS will be fought. At the very least, people will have to start wearing gas masks. There will also be the temptation for other groups to use the same kinds of weapons against ISIS, leading to a lower tech arms race. No good can come from that.

Right now, the priority for the United States air campaign should be to find out who is making these shells and destroying them and any factory involved in making them. Right now, ISIS probably does not have all that many people that know how to manufacture these weapons. If they live they will train others and they will export that knowledge to other battlefields. It is even a possibility that they could use the techniques they are learning in terrorist attacks on western targets. If the U.S. were to kill these people, not only will they disrupt the chemical attacks, it is possible that ISIS will no longer have anyone left with the knowledge to make the things. If we wait too long though, the results could be devastating... 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Saudi Arabia breaks up major ISIS terror cell and arrests 400 people. AFP

The aftermath of a suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia committed by ISIS. Yahoo/AFP.

Saudi Arabia has broken up an ISIS terrorism ring and arrested at least 400 people. AFP. The Saudis claim the ISIS cells were planning new attacks on Shiite Muslim mosques as well as an attack on a diplomatic mission. The raids resulted in several deaths, including 37 security forces and civilians as well as 6 accused ISIS militants. 120 people were wounded in the operation as well. Of the 431 arrests, 97 were linked to an attack on a Mosque last December that killed 7 people. 190 more were involved in multiple attacks on Shiite Mosques and security forces. Despite the scale of the raids and the number of attacks carried out and foiled, the Interior Minster, Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef says the security situation in Saudi Arabia is under control. Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

My Comment:
It sounds like ISIS has a larger foothold in Saudi Arabia then I thought. Of course I knew that they had a presence there, but if these numbers are accurate, then they had several major cells active in the country. They obviously weren't to the point where they could take and hold territory, but the are able to commit some pretty horrific terror attacks.  

I supposes I should quickly mention that the Saudi justice system is pretty much a joke. They execute people for pretty much anything there and I don't know if I trust them to actually arrest people that are guilty of crimes. It is very possible that some innocent people got pulled into these arrests and it sounds like at the very least quite a few civilians were hurt or killed in this operation. I'm hoping that there aren't too many innocents caught in this dragnet but the Saudi justice system, such as it is, doesn't leave me with much confidence.

That being said, this is a major blow for ISIS in Saudi Arabia. The question now is if it is a deathblow. Losing about 400 people and having several major cells disrupted is a major setback, but it is possible for them to recover. For one thing, there may be other undiscovered cells operating in Saudi Arabia. Just because they disrupted a few of them doesn't mean that there aren't any more out there. And if recent history has taught us nothing, lone wolf style terror attacks can be pulled off by ISIS inspired terrorists with little or no help from the organization. 

There is also the fact that ISIS fighters can infiltrate into the country. ISIS has largely been pushed back from the Saudi border in Iraq, but they can still get fighters into the area. ISIS has been very successful with raids, with the recent attack on Kobani being a prime example. Still, their line of control is quite a ways away from the Saudi border, so perhaps the situation isn't quite comparable. That is assuming nothing changes though, Iraq's security forces have a recent history of collapsing at the worst times.

If Saudi Arabia did break up the main ISIS force in the country that should be a huge relief for them. After all they are fighting a bitter proxy war with Iran in Yemen. And there is always a chance, especially after the new deal with Iran, that the cold war with Iran could heat up into a very hot one. Should that happen, Saudi Arabia will be happy to know that their home front is secure. 

As for ISIS, I have to say I am impressed by their strategy here, even though it seems like it just completely fell apart. They know that Saudi Arabia is far too strong to take on militarily, even if they are distracted in Yemen. Their ground forces are strong and they have a huge air force with tons of deadly weapons at their disposal. Any major attack into Saudi territory with their more conventional forces would fail and fail quickly.

Clearly a frontal attack would not work. Instead ISIS went for a more insidious route. Though ISIS hardly needs an excuse to attack Shiite Muslims, doing so in Saudi Arabia has some pretty obvious advantages. The country has a large Shiite minority who don't always get along with the Saudi Kingdom. By attacking the Shiites, ISIS is showing them that the government can't always protect them. They are inciting prejudice as well, because very few people out there are willing to make the distinction between Sunni Muslims who hate you and want to kill you and the Sunni Muslims that barely tolerate you and rule over you with an iron fist. 

The idea is that sooner or later the Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia will get fed up with being bombing targets and will revolt against the Kingdom. Then ISIS can sweep in in the chaos of yet another civil war and get a toehold in the country. Perhaps they could even threaten Mecca itself. 

Notably, this is the same goal that Iran has in Saudi Arabia as well. Their support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen has very little to do with Yemen itself, but it has a hell of a lot to do with inspiring Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia to revolt. One wonders who would benefit from an unstable Saudi Arabia more, Iran or ISIS?

Of course, if the terror cells have been broken up, the whole distinction is academic. Even if the plan would work, and there is no guarantee that it would, it can't happen if your whole organization is in prison awaiting decapitation. ISIS may rebuild to retry again, or activate other cells, but for now it seems the threat of a Shia revolt due to these terror attacks are slim to none.