Iranian nukes

A friend sent along this piece from on the IAEA's allegations about the Iranian nuclear project:
Besides the NYT, none of the other papers give much play to the IAEA report and emphasize the agency said it has no evidence that Iran's military has gotten involved in the country's nuclear program. For its part, the NYT specifies that 18 documents were included in the report that claim "Iranians have ventured into explosives, uranium processing and a missile warhead design," which could suggest that nuclear weapons are being developed. The nuclear watchdog agency also says Iran has failed to disclose advancements in its nuclear program and suggests the country could be producing enriched uranium. David Albright, a former weapons inspector who is the go-to guy for these kinds of stories, tells the NYT that the "Iranians are being confronted with some pretty strong evidence of a nuclear weapons program" and the report "is very damning." But Albright also tells the LAT there are some key components missing from the report that one would expect to find in a weapons program. Iran insists the documents are fakes but has failed to release evidence and provide access to international inspectors that could verify Tehran's claims.
Iran's lack of cooperation with the IAEA could indicate that they are hiding a nuclear weapons program, or could be a matter of national pride (like how the US rejects UN elections inspectors), or could be designed to foster uncertainty about their intentions and capabilities. Here are the likely possibilities that I see:
  • Iran has a weapons program and is hiding it very well
  • Iran doesn't have a weapons program currently but plan to have one in the future and so maintains some of the components today
  • Iran's political decision-making mechanisms are so convoluted that some people are setting up weapons program components while others aren't, and nobody knows what is going on, including the Iranians themselves
  • Iran doesn't have the expertise to develop a nuclear weapon small enough to be weaponized on their crappy missiles, but wants to create uncertainty about their capabilities in order to paralyze US and European decision making and/or extract concessions
However I don't know too much about nuclear weapons programs. Comments?

Looking at insurgencies, and data selection

Via Zenpundit, I came across a good article in Armed Forces Journal by Capt. Robert Chamberlain that looks at the faulty idea that insurgencies/counterinsurgencies always take a long time:
It is simply untrue that counterinsurgencies are inherently long-term struggles.
When I started studying the Tuareg insurgencies in Mali and Niger, I was surprised to learn that there had been an insurgency in 1963-1964 in Mali. I had never heard of it, because it hadn't killed very many people. One Tuareg clan - the Kel Adagh, based near Kidal, Mali - rebelled against the Malian government and were brutally crushed in short order. As I wrote in my thesis:
The Malian Army crushed the Kel Adagh rebellion by using widespread violence against civilians, torture, declaring the countryside outside of a few towns a vast free-fire zone, poisoning wells necessary for any activity outside towns, killing Tuareg herds of cattle and camels to force them into the cities, executing the religious and political leaders of both rebel and neutral clans, and threatening napalm bombing from fighter-bombers.
In Chamberlain's metaphor, this was a "kitchen fire" rather than a five-alarm blaze, and because it did not reach 1000 battle deaths, the 1963 rebellion does not appear in the main intra-state war database, Correlates of War (COW).

When academics study insurgencies en masse, they create databases full of very bloody, long insurgencies that kill lots of people but ignore the many many more small, short-lived insurgencies. Consequently our understanding of insurgency as a mode of conflict is skewed towards large bloody messes. I'd hazard a guess that this problem doesn't have the same degree of impact in studying conventional wars, because conventional wars are easier to find in the historical record, and usually the combatants are states that wield significant combat power, meaning there aren't as many kitchen fires that don't turn into five-alarm blazes.

The problem of data selection is cemented in the Correlates of War database. This database is a one-stop shop for researchers on war, but it only counts conflicts that result in more than one thousand battle deaths. Some sort of filter like that is necessary or else the data set would be too large to be useful. The problem comes when researchers like Paul Collier take the COW data, look at intra-state conflict and extrapolate their findings to all intra-state conflict ever, instead of just intra-state conflict with more than 1000 battle deaths.

Using COW data, Collier and Hoeffler reached the conclusion that rebellions happen when there exist opportunities for rebellion (rather than grievances for rebellion). Had they thought about the limitations of their data, they would have realized that their argument only showed that rebellions survive to create conflicts large enough to appear on COW's radar when the opportunity exists for large rebellions - and that rebellions driven by grievances might occur in hostile environments for rebellion but would be wiped out quickly, like the 1963 rebellion by the Kel Adagh.

Dan Byman, the head of my old program, said something related in a talk a couple months ago. He noted that a lot of people argue that terrorism doesn't kill large numbers of people. Byman argued that's only true because when terrorism does start to kill lots of people, we don't call it terrorism any more. Exhibit A, the firebombings of Germany and Tokyo. Exhibit B, the 1990s civil war in Algeria. Exhibit C, the situation in Iraq.

This whole problem is similar to Taleb's idea of "silent evidence" - in order to understand big house fires, you have to look at the big fires themselves, as well as small fires that don't become big fires. Only then can you really understand what factors are important in turning small fires into big ones (click the link to see that even Harvard professors do not understand this concept).

The point of Chamberlain's article was that the mantra that 'counterinsurgency campaigns take a long time' has been used as an excuse for the failure to provide a coherent strategy for a favorable outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan:
According to conventional wisdom, we will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for at least 10 years because they are insurgencies, and that’s how long insurgencies take...
This is an abdication of the responsibilities of strategic leadership. The American public is owed more of an explanation than, “Well, these things take a while.” It is owed a comprehensive strategic vision...
Fabius Maximus continues this point by arguing that when an insurgency has carried on long enough and is damaging enough for a country to beg for large-scale American military involvement, that country is probably doomed to lose anyway. A more effective counterinsurgency strategy for the United States would focus on the small "kitchen fires", and try to keep those kitchen fires from becoming big fires, rather than reacting late to put out big fires.

Obama's VP - how about Clark

At lunch last week with a former professor of mine, we agreed that Obama should consider Wes Clark as a Vice Presidential nominee.

The benefits of Wes Clark as Obama's running mate:
  • Perceived (perceptions > reality) national security experience balances Obama's inexperience
  • Close ties with the Clintons help bridge the gap between the Obama people and the Clinton people
  • Isn't associated with Washington politics, keeping the "change" theme going
  • Clark's background as a poor white boy from Arkansas might help makes inroads on the bigot vote, especially if McCain picks Bobby Jindal (Brown '91!) as his VP, who is Indian
  • Beloved by media types like Bill O'Reilly and CNN
The benefits of Wes Clark as Obama's actual VP:
  • Very smart
  • Experience with messy wars in Bosnia and Kosovo
  • Knows a lot of the Pentagon people already
  • Hasn't been slamming Obama in public - although he endorsed Clinton for President, he hasn't done any negative campaigning and has put most of his energy into targeted Congressional races and specific bills
  • Isn't Dick Cheney
Another potential VP for Obama I'd like to see is Senator Jim Webb.

Weird politics (but one constant)

Arrived in Massachusetts. I listened to a lot of NPR on the way up here, and heard some strange stories - two in which I agreed with President Bush and one in which I almost agreed with Lieberman.

Bush vetoed the farm bill because it is full of pork for rich farmers and food prices are sky high anyway so they don't need it. Naturally all the Midwestern Congressman are screaming, as they feel entitled to billions in welfare from the federal government. Shooting down agricultural subsidies is one of the few things I agree with Bush on. It is strange to find myself agreeing with Bush.

Bush also signed a bill criminalizing genetic discrimination regarding health insurance, something I recently wrote about. Again, I agree with Bush, strange.

Even Senator Lieberman proved he isn't a total waste of oxygen today, pushing a cap-and-trade climate change bill. The bill isn't great, but it is better than nothing and shows how far the debate has moved - a few years ago this bill would have been described as radical, but now it's middle-of-the-road.

But in today's tumultuous political world, there is one constant - Dick Cheney. Today he told the graduating class at the Coast Guard Academy:
"The only way to lose this fight [Iraq] is to quit. That would be irresponsible. More than that, quitting would be an act of betrayal and dishonor."
Full text of his speech (which I haven't read) here.

Cheney believes the majority of Americans to be irresponsible dishonorable betrayers (of whom? not sure). Dick, America's leaders (which in eight long months will no longer include you) are going to have a tough enough time extracting the United States out a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency/foreign occupation already. You don't need to make their job harder by throwing in this "stabbed in the back" myth (Dolchstoss) for them to deal with as well.

Apparently Cheney and others responsible for the war would rather poison American civil-military relations than face the reality of their own mistakes.


Nobody likes it coming down to penalty kicks.

Chelsea lost in the Champions League final to Manchester United. They also lost the Premier League on the last day of the season last week, also to Man Utd. The EPL loss was their own fault - they didn't even win their last game of the season to put pressure on Man Utd. This loss was luck.

Going dark

I am picking up and moving to Rochester, NY, via Boston. Little or no blogging until June.

More on the CIA case in Italy

Now that Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is involved in the CIA trial/debacle in Italy, American news outlets will finally cover it. There are articles about it in the New York Times, LA Times, AP, etc. The Jurist blog has a good article on it too. M├╝nzenberg's hopes have been realized.

The latest news is about Abu Omar's wife testifying how he was tortured for 14 months in Egyptian jails. One of the Italian codefendants, the former head of Italy's military intelligence service (who denies having assisted CIA in Abu Omar's kidnapping), objected to Abu Omar's wife testifying in a veil because her clothing was "a symbol of fanatacism and extremism." Gee whiz, why won't Europe's Muslims integrate faster?

Now seems a good time to plug a post over at Small Wars Journal's blog called The Children of the Left, on the long-term blowback from abandoning our values.

Great success!

I got a job! King of the castle, king of the castle.

Genetic discrimination

Congress just passed a law banning genetic discrimination by health insurers. This shows the flaws of privatized health insurance and the logic of single-payer socialized health care.

Here's a NYTimes article on the law:
The legislation, which President Bush has indicated he will sign, speaks both to the mounting hope that genetic research may greatly improve health care and the fear of a dystopia in which people’s own DNA could be turned against them.

On the House floor on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans alike cited anecdotes and polls illustrating that people feel they should not be penalized because they happened to be born at higher risk for a given disease.

...Many who do learn that they are at higher risk for a disease opt not to ask their insurance companies to cover the costs of the genetic test, to keep the information secret.

...While the intent of the law is to prohibit discrimination by insurance companies based on genetic tests, the bill does allow the companies urge patients take them. The goal would be not to deny coverage but to help find the best, and least expensive, therapy for a patient.
Here is the text of the bill. The House passed it 414-3 (3 Republicans including Ron Paul opposed it), the Senate passed it 95-0, and Bush is expected to sign it - this bill is even less controversial than Mother's Day (which Republicans voted against!). The fact that this bill was so uncontroversial signals an unease with the basic premise of private health insurance.

Genetic screening would be a normal part of any insurance underwriting process - trying to screen out high-risk customers so the insurance company doesn't get bogged down solely with expensive patients. Right now apparently about one in eight people who apply for health care individually are denied through the underwriting process, and even more are forced to pay higher premiums (pages 8-10). Some of the reasons may be under a patient's control (smoking, etc.) while others aren't (chronic diseases, family's medical history). This is distasteful but necessary to any method of paying for health care that does not agglomerate all potential patients in a single risk pool (single-payer).

Nothing separates screening out patients with a genetic predisposition towards expensive illnesses, and patients with chronic yet dormant illnesses that may have expensive flare-ups in the future (both have current low costs but a high risk for future high costs). Congress outlawed the former because the concept of genetic screening is icky (a technical term). The later is legal.

A lot of conservatives like to blather on about how the free market will fix the way we pay for health care. Companies succeed in the free market by increasing revenue and cutting losses, which is exactly what Congress just outlawed. This is not evil behavior - if a company gave coverage to anyone who wanted it, it would go out of business and not be able to cover anybody.

Some people say that the government can pick up all the really sick people that are uninsurable. All that does is privatize the profit (from low-risk insurance policies) and socialize the risk.

Free markets are great for some things, like selling my fridge. They are not great at charity and ensuring that the least fortunate in society are taken care of. Universal single-payer health care is the way to go.

Brief thoughts on Lebanon

Although it was billed as a "civil war", it seems the recent violence in Lebanon was Hezbollah eliminating a bunch of rival militias before they could pose a threat to its power. According to a lot of reports, rival militia members, many of whom are simply hired guns, ran away without firing a shot. The Lebanese army didn't do anything, for fear of not being able to do anything.

Hezbollah gains a lot of its strength from its provision of social services - schools, hospitals, welfare programs, agricultural centers, etc. These gain it loyalty amongst Lebanon's Shia population, through building the credibility of the organization (compare Hezbollah's actions after the summer 2006 war to FEMA in Katrina), trust amongst members, basically social capital. That loyalty in turn is what gives Hezbollah military strength - fighters willing to die for the cause. The other militias in Lebanon do not have these broad social/political structures.

Hezbollah's social services are thus the source of its military power. New militias that attempt to join the game have to go through a period of vulnerability - it takes time to build loyalty and social capital in order to get fighters willing to die for you, and I guess Hezbollah decided to strike before its rivals crossed that threshold.

Hezbollah is being described as a "state within a state." But it's not within anything, the 'state' of Lebanon exists just like the 'state' of Iraq. Little legitimacy, little actual power. So Hezbollah is really just a state by itself.

I haven't been following the current violence in depth, but some good sources are Abu Muqawama, BBC, Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal, the Angry Arab, and the Media Shack who has been posting on Arab media reactions to what's going on.

More than pieces of paper

Although the government of Mali signed a truce with rebel insurgents about a month ago, there has been a recent spate of attacks over the last few days. Is it worth signing peace deals when you know they will be broken?

Mali (and its neighbor Niger) is in the midst of what Wikipedia calls the "Second Tuareg Rebellion." It began in Mali in May of 2006, but the main rebel groups agreed on peace the following July. The sole holdout was a group loyal to Ibrahim Bahanga, which kept fighting until a cease fire signed last month under the 'guidance' of the Libyans. This peace deal held up until about a week ago, when there were a number of violent clashes between security forces and insurgents. It is not certain that Bahanga's men are responsible for these attacks, but it is a reasonable assumption.

If we look back to 1990, the government of Mali has signed peace deals in 1991, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2006, and 2008, and none of them have held up. Yet Malian officials and even the Malian military still sees political agreements as vital to solving the "problem of the North." Even those these peace deals keep getting broken, I think they are still beneficial to the government for several reasons:

1) They strengthen Mali's democratic tradition, in which consensus-based decentralized governance plays a key role;
2) They demonstrate to nomadic populations the willingness of the government to engage nomads politically rather than just militarily, as was the case in the past;
3) They emphasize the health of civil-military relations in Mali (especially relative to other countries in the region) which also helps with American military training;
4) They demonstrate to the West that Mali "speaks democracy" and is thus deserving of Western aid;
5) The failure of rebels to adhere to the peace deals delegitimizes them in the eyes of the local population because the rebels either break their word or lack the power to control their fighters.

The danger of all these peace deals is that the government makes promises that it can't deliver on, such as large amounts of development and aid (the mistake of the 1991 and 1992 peace deals), or integrating lots of rebels into Mali's military, which can backfire (as it did last week).

The alternative to signing peace deals and political agreements is to pursue a military solution, like Mali's neighbor Niger is doing. The situation is not strictly analogous, but Niger's military has pressured the president into letting them pursue a military solution to the MNJ problem. The result has been (so far) a military stalemate. Libya might have flipped its policy away from the MNJ and towards the Niger government, so perhaps that stalemate will move in favor of the government soon, but so far the results of a purely military strategy have not been better than Mali's political strategy.

The peace deal a month ago was "preliminary" and provided a cease fire and a framework to hammer out a more conclusive peace deal in the future. Whatever peace deal is signed in the future, it too will probably be broken, maybe by Bahanga, maybe by someone else. But even so, it is still worthwhile to sign these things.

New Nike soccer commercial

Nike always does great soccer commercials. Here is the latest one, apparently directed by Guy Ritchie. The TV version is a bit shorter because they cut out three short snippets - spitting out teeth, 'special autograph', and puking after training.