Speaking Softly while Carrying a Big Stick

The Big Stick

Conrad Black writing yesterday in American Greatness described how a great power acts. Let’s follow along.

It is not too soon to examine the shifting strategic balance in the world in the light of the unfolding coronavirus crisis and its economic and political consequences.

Though he gets little credit for it—even from his supporters, who tend not to be overly sophisticated foreign policy specialists—President Trump has carefully developed a subtle foreign policy. This policy is based on a definition of America’s interests that is not adventurously overstretched like Lyndon Johnson’s plunge into the ground war in Vietnam or George W. Bush’s energetic support for democracy—even in places like Gaza, Lebanon, and eventually, Egypt, that had little aptitude for it and democratically elected anti-democratic politicians. Nor is Trump’s foreign policy the wavering pacifism and overly earnest pursuit of adversaries as President Obama attempted with Iran.

Trump has revived the concept of nuclear non-proliferation in the case of untrustworthy states (Iran and North Korea) and has left local disputes to be worked out locally, where it wasn’t practical for the United States to maintain force levels adequate to prevail over local balances.

Rather another case of ‘threading the needle’ neither the Charybdis of intervening where we have little or no interest (perhaps beyond those who believe in the ‘forever wars’ that have so disenchanted the American people) and the Scylla of isolationism, which would negate any interest of the United States (and the Western Civilization that we revere). It’s not an easy task as many British diplomats in the 19th and early 20th centuries would attest.

This is how a sensible Great Power maintains its influence, by defending what is important, ignoring what isn’t, avoiding unnecessary confrontations, and sorting out abrasions without humiliating anyone—except where serious provocations require disproportionate responses, as in the execution of Iranian Quds Force  General Qasem Soleimani earlier this year.

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded that an American presence was required in Western Europe and the Far East to prevent those key regions getting into the hands of enemies of this hemisphere. The resulting policy of “containment” was devised by Roosevelt’s strategic team and executed by President Truman and his successors and imaginatively refined on two occasions. Richard Nixon triangulated Great Power arrangements with his opening of relations with China, and Ronald Reagan pushed to build a comprehensive high-altitude, laser-based, missile defense system which implicitly threatened to undermine the entire Soviet nuclear deterrent capability. The combination of Chinese diplomatic and high-technology military pressure caused the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union.

You will, of course, remember that at Reykjavik, Gorbachev offered to put the whole Soviet missile inventory on the table to get the SDI removed. Reagan said no, knowing it was a war winner, and it was, even the American threat to deploy it was.

And now comes China:

China is becoming technologically and commercially skilled, but it has very few resources. A chronically overaged population is developing after their insane “one-child policy,” and the Chinese are extremely vulnerable to American pressure, both on tariffs and in America’s ability to encourage official Taiwanese separation. Despite its swashbuckling, China is in no position to challenge the United States for mastery in the world’s sea lanes, and China’s neighbors look to America for encouragement. Trump has given it to Japan, India, and others, quietly. Like Japan before World War II, which was importing 85 percent of its oil from the United States while it invaded China and Indochina, China today would be severely compromised if the United States blocked its ability to dump goods in sophisticated markets.

In economic as in other matters, the United States is able to outbid almost any country for the goodwill of a third party, as is demonstrated by the Europeans’ accommodation to American sanctions on Iran, which they opposed.

China is the enemy in what is shaping up to be the new cold war and another one that could go hot. The US Marine Corps is already reconfiguring itself away from the small war ethos that has dominated since the Clinton years toward a maritime-based policy design to cripple China, which is very dependent on its unfair trade practices, a fact exacerbated by the Chinese flu and especially the cover-up perpetrated by the CCP. The US, however, if we can recover our balance, and increasingly it looks as if the people have taken over that problem (Time to go back to work) that will happen. As Trump’s ad said this week, we did it before and we can do it again, and if western civilization is going to survive we have to.


And we would be wise to remember some words of Adali Stevenson:

Communism is the death of the soul. It is the organization of total conformity – in short, of tyranny – and it is committed to making tyranny universal.

As an afterthought, I note that the US-UK trade talks started yesterday, once again there is hope that it may again be as Maggie Thatcher observed…

During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or other, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it.

Iowa; and Winning

In Iowa last night:

Trump won, with something around 97%. Probably good enough! 🙂

The Democrats? Well nobody knows, the mickey mouse reporting system they devised is amazingly FUBARed, maybe we’ll have results by New Hampshire, or maybe not. Will anybody trust them anyway? Amazing from the ‘smart’ party.

Then there is Mitch McConnell. Most of us, and it’s increasingly affectionate, tend to call him “Cocaine Mitch”, somewhere back in time there was a reason, but darned if I remember it. But as Cristopher Roach reminds us in American Greatness, McConnell, like Trump, likes to win.

[I]n Navy SEAL training, winners of competitive events are often rewarded with extra chow and rest. Losers are punished. As the cadre constantly reminds trainees, “It pays to be a winner.”

As we’ve seen with the Democrats’ impeachment debacle and the Republican Senate’s ongoing successes with judges—including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows how to win. The New York Times grimly reported, “Democrats have called Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, the grim reaper. He embraces the nickname with enthusiasm.”

Indeed, his effectiveness is remarkable only because it is so rare among Republicans. Republicans traditionally delight in stiffing their voters. Has everyone forgotten the late Senator John McCain’s dramatic refusal to repeal Obamacare after years of promising to do so? While McConnell is a low-key guy, he is at peace with Trump, has focused on their common goals, and is not hostile to the wishes of his most important constituents, Republican voters.

In spite of their differences in style, Trump and McConnell share an important agreement regarding their fundamental understanding of politics: they both know that politics is about power and winning.

Working Together, As a Party Should

Trump’s embrace of power is undeniable. He has employed executive power to assert American interests on trade. He has deployed military power in a limited way against America’s enemies abroad, particularly in the case of ISIS. Trump has used executive power to move defense budget money around to build a wall.

McConnell and Trump both have grasped that judges have been an important stumbling block to Republican agenda items and have worked hard to ensure a record number of judges are confirmed during this window of opportunity.

Republicans were not always like this. An old friend—and one who is typical of the NeverTrump mindset—insists that how you play the game is more important than winning. But actually, it’s not. This is not baseball. Politics is high stakes. The genteel refusal to deploy power against the Left is an artifact from a different kind of politics in a different kind of country.

We are no longer having a “national conversation” among friends. It’s not about who has the better arguments. It’s a war. We count votes as a shorthand measure for numbers and power. As in war, you win first and worry about principles later.

Yep. McConnell, and Trump for that matter, are of the same generation as I am. We grew up in a different world, one where heroes were winners, our father’s generation won World War II, and they left us some good words. One of the guys who summed it up was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who said often:

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

If you’d like a short form synopsis of why America is what it is, well, there it is. I’m also reminded of Patton’s speech to 3d Army.

 Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.

And the Democrats have decided that politics is the new war. McConnell is acting accordingly. Why do the Dems have the House? The answer is in two words: “Paul Ryan”.

McConnell’s adjustment to reality and concern for results should be contrasted with former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Ryan ran as a conservative, mouthing the right words about abortion, gay marriage, and big government. But, when in office, he tended to be AWOL on the culture war and diffident about Republican voters, much like President George W. Bush, who reflexively chastised them.

During the Bush years, Ryan was the model Republican, concerned more with fiscal issues than cultural ones, and gladly acting as a water boy for big business, whose wants were laundered into high minded and “principled” policy positions through the think tanks they fund. Bush and Ryan both pushed for tax cuts, immigration amnesty, and government transfer payments to the pharmaceutical industry, and nothing they did stopped a single abortion, dealt with the long-term impact of demographic replacement, or addressed the mass death and demoralization among working-class Americans.

Yep, I remember it well, the sell-out of the Reagan Revolution.

In other words, Trump’s voters knew the American people were in a real fight against a real enemy. And to fight you need a fighter, not Ned Flanders. But the only group Republicans like Paul Ryan, Jeff Flake, and Justin Amash were willing to fight for—to the point of “retiring” and leaving their seats vulnerable—were their megadonors and the media.

While some NeverTrumpers are lunatics hell-bent on revenge, Ryan was more typical. He was polite and conflicted. In spite of his superficial differences with his opponents, he fundamentally bought into the pseudomorality of the Left. The professional class’s morality is steeped in the feminism of the businesswoman and her beta lackeys, who recoiled in horror at the “Access Hollywood” tape.

There’s quite a bit more at the link, and it’s all good. I keep coming back to Vince Lombardi, whom even a strong fan of ‘daBears’ like me, admired inordinately.

“Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”

China’s teething Problems

Yesterday we looked at how the Royal Navy is progressing smoothly in its return to big deck carrier aviation. Most of that is down to British know-how and the professionalism of the Royal Navy. But some of it is also due to the United States Navy, who has helped Britain maintain the skills and ethos of air warfare at sea. It’s been a remarkably successful program for both countries.

But another country wants to play in this league, Communist China. And no surprise its program isn’t running so smoothly. Strategy Page explains.

Earlier in 2019 it looked like China was moving forward to expand its carrier force by building four steam powered carriers followed by a larger nuclear powered class similar to the American ones. At the end of 2019 it was announced that plans had changed. There were numerous problems that contributed to the decision and it meant a smaller Chinese fleet with far fewer carriers.

The most immediate problem was the trade war with the United States. Exports to the U.S. are down 23 percent and devaluation of the yuan (the Chinese currency) mean that dollars coming from the U.S. trade is down by nearly 30 percent. […]

The second problem is military technology. China expected difficulties developing and implementing all the many technologies needed to effectively operate carrier task forces. Fixing those problems is taking longer than expected. This is especially true with the carriers and aircraft that can operate from them. Most of China’s modern aircraft are illegal copies of Russian designs and efforts to implement lots of stolen American aircraft tech has not gone as smoothly as hoped. […]

There is another problem with those claims; many Chinese neighbors have increased their defense spending specifically to deal with the Chinese navy. The American naval forces in the western Pacific plus the fleets of South Korea and Japan were already a formidable naval force blocking Chinese use of gunboat diplomacy. But now many smaller nations are allied with the larger anti-Chinese nations and those smaller nations are buying lots of submarines, fighter-bombers with anti-ship missiles as well as shore based anti-ship missiles. The Chinese plan to build more warships and intimidate neighbors into submission backfired. The many threatened neighbors united and joined an arms race China cannot afford.

One could almost feel sorry for them if they weren’t bloodthirsty tyrants. But they are, and so the most likely targets for US (and British, YAY!) carrier planes in the next decade or so is likely to be those carriers of the Chinese Army Navy

Look, there’s not much to add if you read the link. But it’s good they are having problems, and we should do what we can to make them worse. We had a huge head start back in the day, started as a British colony, and adopting many of the RNs attitudes. And still, 250 years on, we speak the same language, and not only English but other little things, like always seeking the weather gage, so to force the engagement, even against odds. That’s why the single-ship actions in our wars against Britain were so thrilling, nobody was will to run.

The Chinese are assiduous students of history, but there remains a chasm between reading what needs to happen and knowing it instinctively, and that’s the difference. Can the Chinese overcome that? sure, eventually, but it will be expensive in both money and blood. The Royal Navy has been around since the launch of HMS Mary Rose in 1510, the US Navy back to 13 October 1775. That’s a lot of knowledge and tradition to overcome. Many have tried, none so far have succeeded. There is a reason why Catherine the Great of Russia once declared that the greatest Russian admiral was John Paul Jones.

Seventy-eight years ago this year the US Pacific fleet sailed into battle against Japan against overwhelming odds and in five minutes won the war against Japan. It’s what we do. And it is what the British taught us as well.

What’s Going On in Iran?

Have you been following the (mostly non-) news from Iran? Interesting isn’t it? China and Hong Kong, Iran and the Iranian people, plus the Iraqis and the Lebanese, it’s almost like people like being free. The best I’ve seen is Michael Ledeen in FrontPage Magazine.

The country is on fire. All classes, all tribes from the Persians to the Kurds are fighting the security forces and the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, and an increasingly divided Hezbollah. The leaders of the regime are unrestrained in their crackdown. In order to keep their actions as far as possible from public view, the leaders have killed off the internet links with the outside world, and despite American boasts that Washington can turn on the internet at will, the regime has kept communications with Iranians at historic minima.

The proximate cause of these demonstrations was an overnight increase in the cost of gasoline. I say “proximate cause” because the anti-regime outbursts had been ongoing for months, if not years. The increased price for gasoline was significant, but not decisive. So far as I can determine, the crowds of demonstrators chanted political slogans, not economic ones. They wanted an end to the Islamic Republic, not lower prices for gas.

The Iranian eruption is only one of many in the region, as Lebanese and Iraqis also joined the protest against Tehran. Iraqis, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for an end to the Hezbollah domination of the country as part of a general demand for a thoroughgoing political transformation.

The most radical demand is the downfall of the whole sectarian, political Islamist system. This is the first and most important demand in Tahrir Square — they want a separation of religion and politics. This demand includes the government resigning, especially Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the prime minister.

Now mind, these guys aren’t asking for American boots, they want to be free, but on their terms, which are unlikely to be anything acceptable to Washington, let alone the heartland. But it’s their countries and their people. We can, perhaps, aid and abet a bit, but it’s up to them, to structure their lives as they see fit.

Because make no mistake, Iran under its present rulers is an implacable foe of the United States and keeps us from doing other things in the region that we should be doing. But this isn’t something, like Hong Kong, where one side is demanding democracy on the Anglo-American model.

Why that warning? Morris Ayek witing in en.qantara.de may have that answer.

Here, too, the distinctiveness of Arabic – although it has the same meaning in other languages – is useful in looking at Arab civil wars as wars between social entities. Non-Arab civil wars such as the Russian, the French, the Spanish, the Greek and so forth were between citizens. Groups that identify themselves through modern ideologies and institutions aim at the triumph of these ideologies. Indeed, they may be seen as a concomitant struggle in transition.

Arab civil wars, on the other hand, are wars between kinsfolk, however they may appear in their early stages. The social group becomes partisan, whether sectarian, tribal, party political or ethnic. The key difference between the two types of conflicts is that Arab civil wars have no end. In the non-Arab world, it is the ideology which is defeated, whilst with us Arabs, there can be no end. The Sunni, the Shia, the Alawite and the Christian will remain, like the Arab, the Kurd and the South Sudanese.

Social ties are the true driver

The only point of Arab civil wars is dominion, which is characterised by warlords who live by perpetuating war as a source of wealth, subjugating and plundering. They differ from other civil wars, in which each warring party has sought to build an economy with which to replenish resources and to guarantee victory. Ironically, this revenue-generating model is similar to the normal workings of an Arab economy.

Quite a lot more at the link, and I think it summarized pretty well why Anglo-American style democracy is not going to break out any time soon in the Middle East.


Veteran’s Day

In 2012, as we gathered to salute our veterans, and the rest of the Anglosphere gathered to remember their war dead, there was no one to take our salute for the Great War. Florence Green, a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force, died on 4 February 2012 two weeks short of her 111th birthday, at King’s Lynne. She was the very last veteran of World War I. And so, while we remember them, never again will we see them on this side.

Maybe it’s just as well, they likely wouldn’t be impressed with the mess we have made on both sides of the Atlantic. But we have an advantage, we have their example for a guide. They were indeed our best, equal in every way to those who came a mere twenty years later, and even in the conflicts, hot and cold, that followed that war. Only a fool thinks there will ever be a war to end all wars.

But 101 years ago, at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, the war we still call the Great War came to end, first by an armistice and then by treaty. The things left undone in the negotiations would have much to do with the Second World War, but that is nothing to do with the warriors.

Interestingly, it is also Old Michaelmas Day, the day when St Michael the Archangel threw out Devil out of Heaven. St Michael the Archangel is, of course, the leader of the heavenly army that will defeat Satan at the end of days. He is also the Patron of Paratroopers, and some say the Infantry. So a very appropriate day, wonder if they thought of it in 1918.

The date of July 4, 1917 marks a watershed. It was the day that a battalion of the 11th US Infantry marched through Paris, proclaiming “Lafayette, we are here”. A recognition that we owed France much for their help in the Revolution.

It marked a watershed in the war, as the promise of new fresh troops, lifted the morale of the Allies, and hurt that of the Central Powers. But more than that, it was a watershed for America, too. For the first time, we put our soldiers in harm’s way to save other people. The world changed.

It took us till about 1942 before we realized that now we were the leaders of the free world, that the British and the Empire had impoverished themselves in the Great War, and could no longer control events. In 1945, we took that mantle, somewhat unwillingly, but decisively. And thus was born both the Pax Americana and “The American Century”.

And all through the century, our troops have been everything we could have wished, and the best ambassadors America could have wished for. A good many years ago now, Robert Leckie called them “Planetary Soldiers”. It was and is an apt description.


Admiral Nimitz rather summed up our armed forces when he said after Iwo Jima:

Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue

Drones and Droning

So Trump stupidly put a drone at risk and then chickened out of blowing some radar and missile sites up as retaliation. Is that the story? Yeah, well, tell it to the Marines.

Yep, we lost a drone, a big expensive one (it’s bigger than a 737), but what was it doing there. You don’t need that sort of capability to take some pretty pictures. If I had to guess, I’d guess (and I have no knowledge) it’s an elint bird, probing the Mullah’s defenses and getting them to emit. And they did. Some Iranian colonel isn’t going to take it on his responsibility to shoot down an American aircraft, unmanned or not. That just ain’t how you become an Iranian colonel. Wonder what we learned! I heard yesterday that we carried out a cyber attack on Iran last weekend. I doubt they are unconnected.

As for the rest, I fit somewhere in here with Steven Hayward of PowerLine who says:

Iran likely believes that the United States lacks the political will, and maybe even the means (aside from unusable nuclear weapons), to conquer the regime. A singular retaliatory attack of limited effect, however, serves Iran’s purposes, which include destabilizing the global oil market, raising the price of oil, roiling its neighbors in the Middle East, and causing domestic political trouble for Trump. Maybe there is even a plan that involves unleashing Hezbollah to attack Israel. Throw in some assassinations and terror in other Sunni Arab nations and Iran can accomplish a lot.

Everyone today is saying that Trump looks weak, foolish, or vacillating for calling off a retaliatory strike and then talking so candidly and publicly about it. I think the opposite: Trump has laid out a clear red line that was not clear prior to the tanker attacks and drone shootdown: You kill Americans, you will be hit back. If Iran now makes a public attack in the Gulf that kills Americans, Trump will have the upper hand politically. Neither Iran nor our vacillating allies (and our Democratic Party) can say they weren’t explicitly warned.

Along that same line but taking it further is Bookworm over at Watchers of Weasels.

Trump cultivates a different, albeit equally unpredictable and dangerous, image: He’s the attack dog, constantly barking ferociously, anxious to charge his enemies and rip out their jugulars. The only thing holding him back is the leash that his more mature advisers are able to tug on, just barely, in order to restrain his killer, otherwise-unmanageable instincts.

This seems to be a successful pose. After all, it was his insouciant, killer dog bomb-dropping during a dinner with Chairman Xi that probably brought Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. On the one hand, Kim is the premier of a despicable, deadly totalitarian system, and has apparently participated fully in that system, whether because he believes in it or because it’s the only way to stay alive in a tank full of fanatical communist alligators. On the other hand, Kim is also a guy who was raised in the West, who likes his creature comforts, and who doesn’t want to die. He worries that Trump might kill him and that’s an incentive to negotiate. […]

Anyway, in theory, if the Mullahs genuinely believe in their own shtick, they’re chomping at the bit for war. Trump, though, at least in my estimation, is gambling that they do not believe in their own shtick. Like so many leaders of fanatical cults, they’re good with sending others off to die for the cult’s benefit, but less interested in doing the dying themselves.

With the events of the past 24 hours, Trump just sent a clear message to the Mullahs: “If it were entirely up to me, the mad dog, any time you cross me in any way, you will die. This time, you got lucky because my advisers were just barely able to hold on to my leash; next time, I guarantee you, you won’t be so lucky.” If that is indeed the message Trump sent and the Mullahs received, it’s a good disincentive for calculating killers who, like so many of the men on death row, are happy meting out death to others but are incredible cowards when they are called to face the Grim Reaper.

Meanwhile, Scott Adams saw an even more brilliant spin to Trump’s conduct over the last 24 hours. (You can hear what he has to say here.) My potted summary is that (a) the U.S. was probing Iran’s defenses and a single drone, no matter how expensive, was a small price to pay for that information; (b) Trump forced the Mullahs to imagine their own deaths (which is kind of the same point I was making); and (c) by saying that the deaths of 150 civilians was what dissuaded Trump from acting this time, Trump sent the message to ordinary Iranians that he cares more about their lives than their own rulers do. Combine that with the crushing economic pressure Trump has placed on Iran since he jettisoned Obama’s awful agreement, and you’ve got the Mullahs thinking very carefully about what to do next.

The emphasis is mine, and it may be important. Think about how that would feel to the average Iranian, who has managed to live through decades of the Mullah’s nonsense, who now finds out that he lived through last week, not because of his leader;s brilliance, but because the American president himself, personally, decided killing him was too high a price to pay to take out a couple of missile batteries. Used properly, it might just be a powerful message.

And that brings me back to Steven Hayward:

Trump also said today that if there is a war with Iran, it would be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.” If Trump means it (and I hope he does), it means that if Iran is determined to have a real, open war with us, we mean to win it. Or course we are not going to invade and occupy Iran like we did with Iraq. But it is a good thing for Iran to wonder whether the crazy man Trump might inflict serious damage beyond a mere pinprick retaliatory strike over a drone.

It reminds me of the simple clarity of my late professor of strategic studies, Harold Rood:

All those ponderous words and phrases like “sufficiency,” “deterrence,” “qualitative superiority,” “essential equivalence,” and the rest are obscure in meaning and even when explained, leave the ordinary sensible mind with the impression of flim-flam. To be tempted into asking some simple question like, “who’s going to win if there’s a war” is to brand yourself pitifully naive at best, or at worst, a throwback to some earlier days when wars were won or lost by the side that was strongest and best prepared to wage war.

As a “throwback to some earlier days,” I suspect Trump is giving the Iranians some reason to worry about their next step. This is one of those moments when Trump’s brash, crude, and indiscreet style of governing-by-tweet actually serves the interests of the country very well.

My Professor of Aerospace Studies said much the same. And yes, I slept quite well last night, I think the President has the whole thing under control.

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