December 3, 2014

The Dangerous Allure of Advanced Technology

The Dangerous Allure of Advanced Technology
“Offset strategies” is a topic currently being discussed in defense circles, the premise being that the U.S. has adopted various approaches to offset an advantage held by an opponent. According to this argument, the U.S. has pursued two previous offset strategies since World War II. The first emerged in the 1950s centered on nuclear weapons and associated operational concepts (like AirLand Battle in the 1980s) to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical advantage in conventional forces. The second focused on highly networked forces leveraging guided weapons such that U.S. forces, exploiting modern information-sharing technologies, would be far more effective than any enemy in coordinated, precision attacks—see the enemy first at great range, orient the force more rapidly to gain positional advantage, strike from long range with great precision, and win before the enemy really ever had a chance to get his act together. Operation Desert Storm is the textbook example. This second offset strategy arose in the mid-1990s as network-centric warfare and has evolved in various ways since then. Current discussions debate what a third offset strategy might be, with most focusing on cyber; next-generation precision weapons; directed energy (e.g., lasers); stealth (reducing the detectable signature of platforms/forces); and unmanned systems.

Ben FitzGerald, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, has published a short essay titled “When Superiority Goes Wrong: Science Fiction and Offset Strategies,” raising justifiable concerns about this approach to the next offset strategy. (The Arthur C. Clarke story mentioned by FitzGerald can be found here. It is quite short, well worth the time to read, and all the more amazing in that Clarke wrote it in 1951!) Underscoring FitzGerald’s concern is the troubling pattern seen in the approach taken by the military services to field new weapon systems: leap-ahead/revolutionary/game-changing capabilities are sought, system/platform complexity increases, technology challenges arise, costs increase, and delays extend…all leading to fewer numbers fielded and much later than initially planned.

The result is a technologically advanced force that is quite small in size, thus having difficulty massing in sufficient numbers in more than one place at a time. A quick review of major defense programs from the past few decades illustrates the problem—B-2 bombers: 132 planned, 21 fielded; F-22 fighters: 650 planned, 183 fielded; DDG-1000 cruisers: 32 planned, 3 fielded; Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): 55 planned, the objective has dropped to 32 and is likely to be far fewer; Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV): 1013 planned, 0 fielded. A similar list was recently compiled by Stephen Rodriguez in his article “Top 10 Failed Defense Programs of the RMA Era.”

One could argue (and many do) that the answer to this lies in defense acquisition reform, but this has proven to be just as alluring and problematic as obtaining a magically advanced force. As documented by J. Ronald Fox in Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009: An Elusive Goal:
From 1960 through 2009, more than twenty-seven major studies of defense acquisition were commissioned by presidents, Congress, secretaries of defense, government agencies, studies and analyses organizations, and universities…[arriving] at most of the same findings [and] recommendations…. [Major] defense programs still require more than fifteen years to deliver less capability than planned, often at two to three times the initial cost.
While Fox catalogs numerous reasons for this, arguably the most central is the military’s fixation on advanced technology as the solution to America’s security problems. Is technology important? Of course it is. But advanced capabilities should not be pursued to the detriment of fielding a force of sufficient capacity to serve U.S. national security interests—yet that is the path our defense community habitually travels.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has proposed to continue this approach in searching for a third offset strategy, as outlined here and here. A concern is that the U.S. defense establishment will remain fixated on early commitment to unproven technologies at the expense of readiness and capacity for operations. As we have noted previously here and here, the defense budget is in disarray and this Administration’s approach to security affairs is dangerously detached from America’s security interests.

In an era of problematic budgets, a better strategy would be to invest scarce resources in maintaining a force that is ready and large enough to serve U.S. security interests while delaying commitment to new technologies until they have been proven to be low risk and affordable enough to field in sufficient numbers. A third offset strategy should focus more on experimentation, new operational concepts, and education and training of the force and less so on premature commitment to unproven, extraordinarily expensive systems. As FitzGerald observes,
The United States relies on technical superiority to maintain its military advantage. But this technical superiority requires humans to generate the right strategies, design and build the right technologies, devise concepts of operations, and train forces to operate the technology to achieve strategic and tactical objectives.… However, we cannot ever let the hubris evident in Superiority lead us to defeat due to, as the narrator assesses, “…the inferior science of our enemies.”

December 2, 2014

On the Firing of Chuck Hagel

Thought you might find the below opinion piece from Jed Babbin of interest. Like Babbin, I think discussion of who succeeds Chuck Hagel is of academic interest, at best, because there is no indication that any of the conditions leading to Hagel’s departure will change. Thus, any replacement will experience the same frustrations and have as little impact on foreign policy, national security, national defense matters as did Hagel. 
I had a hand in drafting this piece last week following the announcement of Hagel’s resignation (firing), in which we provided our own perspective on the topic and made some suggestions about things the Administration can do to improve its ability to handle national security matters. Among the material left on the cutting-room floor during the editing process was this:
“As noted by former Secretary Bob Gates, the National Security Council Staff was composed of approximately 50 people when he worked for President George H. W. Bush; under President Barack Obama, the NSC has exploded to over 350. Former Secretaries Gates and Leon Panetta have both commented on the stifling level of micromanagement exerted by the White House over the execution of actions necessary to implement defense policies and to achieve security objectives aboard. Their frustration was compounded by their inability to penetrate the small, inner-circle of advisers that dominate policy formulation in the White House, an obstacle that confounded President Obama’s first National Security Adviser, General James L. Jones, and reportedly has plagued Secretary Hagel, too…

Cabinet officers are appointed by the President to lead and manage their respective departments, advise the President on policies pertaining to their area of responsibility then implement those policies as directed. If Secretary Hagel was being fired for incompetence in doing this, it would be warranted. But he isn’t. In fact, Hagel was actually successful in implementing the President’s policy to manage the decline of America’s military to levels of capacity and readiness not seen since prior to World War II. In doing so, however, he discovered first-hand the repercussions of such mismanagement when, in consultation with his senior military advisers, he was unable to provide effective options to accomplish the President’s stated objective of destroying ISIS. The President wanted a Secretary who would carry out policies that he had little influence in formulating; sought to manage the Secretary’s implementation of those policies with a staff operating outside of the Secretary’s control; then fired him when impossible-to-achieve results never materialized.”
As has been noted by many commentators over the past week, to include the NY Times (though see this interesting comment here), Washington Post, and other left-leaning/usually pro-Obama outlets, the Administration’s policy formulation, implementation, and management practices are at the heart of the problem…not any particular Secretary of Defense. When it comes to finding a replacement, this problematic process/management issue and the nature of the Obama presidency will preclude appointment of an ‘effective’ SECDEF. Any competent candidate acceptable to a Democratic administration will decline in order to remain viable for a prospective Hillary Clinton administration. Any candidate who might actually want to have an impact will decline knowing full well the insular nature and micromanagement style of the President’s inner-circle that they won’t be able to penetrate. No Republican-affiliated individual would be asked to serve since Obama has already had two Secretaries write tell-all books and the third was increasingly at public odds with the Administration’s defense/security policies; accordingly, priority will be placed on loyalty to the Administration over competence as a SECDEF. Given the delay in gaining Senate confirmation, any new Secretary would have little more than 18 months to accomplish anything and I believe it is usually the case that a waning Administration becomes more tired, more insular, and less likely to change habits…thus any new Secretary will have less chance of making any meaningful changes.

In short, anyone nominated for the position will be selected for loyalty, low-risk to embarrass or argue with the Administration, willing to operate under the thumb of Obama’s inner-circle of advisers and an intrusive national security council staff, and no prospect for future employment in a follow-on Administration.

The American Spectator


Mediocrity by design is how the White House wants it.

By Jed Babbin – 12.1.14

You will hear a lot between now and when Congress convenes in January about how urgent it is that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s replacement be confirmed by the Senate. The president will nominate someone and then shrug his shoulders at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, noting that things aren’t going well, and asking, “What do you expect? The Republicans are to blame because they haven’t confirmed the new defense secretary.”

It will all be baloney, of course, because we know that the secretary of defense’s job has been neutered by Obama’s White House team and it will remain so as long as he’s president.

Unintended Consequences of Cheap Oil

A concise story about the dependence of some countries on high oil prices. In general, we are quite happy when the price of energy drops. It is usually good for the average consumer since everything we buy is affected by the price of energy to produce things and move them to market. The higher the price of energy, the less disposable income the average person has with which to buy groceries, pay for housing, get to and from work, and all the rest. That said, some people and the economies of some entire countries are dependent on the revenue generated from the sale of oil.  When things go bad for them, trouble usually results.

While reading the article, I was reminded of a couple of related graphics I’d seen a few weeks ago, pasted below. As is usually the case, pictures help make sense of statistics provided in text. 

The countries mentioned have sought to appease their populations with substantial subsidies made possible by petro-wealth. If that pool of money dries up, their populations will become restive and troublesome…or so goes the argument.  While hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of U.S. oil shale has dramatically shifted America’s energy position to our favor, it has other potential consequences that could be quite destabilizing in other regions. No, it's not our responsibility to keep single-commodity countries afloat; just something to think about especially as it highlights the inter-dependencies of a global economy and why we tend to get sucked-into regions when things go bad.

Oil at $40 Possible as Market Transforms Caracas to Iran 

By Gregory Viscusi, Tara Patel and Simon Kennedy Dec 1, 2014 4:53 AM ET
Oil’s decline is proving to be the worst since the collapse of the financial system in 2008 and threatening to have the same global impact of falling prices three decades ago that led to the Mexican debt crisis and the end of the Soviet Union.
Russia, the world’s largest producer, can no longer rely on the same oil revenues to rescue an economy suffering from European and U.S. sanctions. Iran, also reeling from similar sanctions, will need to reduce subsidies that have partly insulated its growing population. Nigeria, fighting an Islamic insurgency, and Venezuela, crippled by failing political and economic policies, also rank among the biggest losers from the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last week to let the force of the market determine what some experts say will be the first free-fall in decades.
“This is a big shock in Caracas, it’s a shock in Tehran, it’s a shock in Abuja,” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of Englewood, Colorado-based consultant IHS Inc. and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of oil, told Bloomberg Radio. “There’s a change in psychology. There’s going to be a higher degree of uncertainty.”
A world already unsettled by Russian-inspired insurrection in Ukraine to the onslaught of Islamic State in the Middle East is about be roiled further as crude prices plunge. Global energy markets have been upended by an unprecedented North American oil boom brought on by hydraulic fracturing, the process of blasting shale rocks to release oil and gas. 

Cheap Gasoline 

Few expected the extent or speed of the U.S. oil resurgence. As wildcatters unlocked new energy supplies, some oil exporters abroad failed to invest in diversifying their economies. Coddled by years of $100 crude, governments instead spent that windfall subsidizing everything from 5 cents-per-gallon gasoline to cheap housing that kept a growing population of underemployed citizens content.
Those handouts are now at risk. 
“If the governments aren’t able to spend to keep the kids off the streets they will go back to the streets, and we could start to see political disruption and upheaval,” said Paul Stevens, distinguished fellow for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House in London, a U.K. policy group. “The majority of members of OPEC need well over $100 a barrel to balance their budgets. If they start cutting expenditure, this is likely to cause problems.”

Costs as Benchmark 

Oil has dropped 38 percent this year and, in theory, production can continue to flow until prices fall below the day-to-day costs at existing wells. Stevens said some U.S. shale producers may break even at $40 a barrel or less. The International Energy Agency estimates most drilling in the Bakken formation -- the shale producers that OPEC seeks to drive out of business -- return cash at $42 a barrel.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Chairman Murray Edwards said crude may sink as low as $30 a barrel before rebounding to stabilize at $70 to $75 a barrel, the Financial Post reported.
“Right now we’re seeing a price shock coming out of the meeting and it will be a couple of weeks until we see where the price really falls,” said Yergin. Officials “have to figure out where the new price range is, and that’s the drama that’s going to play out in the weeks ahead.”
Brent crude was down $1.40 at $68.75 as of 9:14 a.m. in London, while New York oil lost $1.47 to $64.68. Brent is now at its lowest since the financial crisis -- when it bottomed around $36.

Not All Suffer 

To be sure, not all oil producers are suffering. The International Monetary Fund in October assessed the oil price different governments needed to balance their budgets. At one end were Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which can break even with oil at about $70 a barrel. At the other extreme: Iran needs $136, and Venezuela and Nigeria $120. Russia can manage at $101 a barrel, the IMF said.
“Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Qatar can live with relatively lower oil prices for a while, but this isn’t the case for Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela, Algeria and Angola,” said Marie-Claire Aoun, director of the energy center at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “Strong demographic pressure is feeding their energy and budgetary requirements. The price of crude is paramount for their economies because they have failed to diversify.”
Brent crude is poised for the biggest annual decline since 2008 after OPEC last week rejected calls for production cuts that would address a global glut.
Like this year’s decline, oil’s crash in the 1980s was brought on by a Saudi-led decision to defend its market share, sending crude to about $12 a barrel.

Russia Vulnerable 

“Russia in particular seems vulnerable,” said Allan von Mehren, chief analyst at Danske Banke A/S in Copenhagen. “A big decline in the oil price in 1997-98 was one factor causing pressure that eventually led to Russian default in August 1998.”
VTB Group, Russia’s second-largest bank, OAO Gazprombank, its third-largest lender, and Russian Agricultural Bank are already seeking government aid to replenish capital after sanctions cut them off from international financial markets. Now with sputtering economic growth, they also face a rise in bad loans.
Oil and gas provide 68 percent of Russia’s exports and 50 percent of its federal budget. Russia has already lost almost $90 billion of its currency reserves this year, equal to 4.5 percent of its economy, as it tried to prevent the ruble from tumbling after Western countries imposed sanctions to punish Russian meddling in Ukraine. The ruble is down 35 percent against the dollar since June.

This Will Pass 

While the country’s economy minister and some oil executives have warned of tough times ahead, President Vladimir Putin is sanguine, suggesting falling oil won’t force him to meet Western demands that he curb his country’s interference in Ukraine.
“Winter is coming and I am sure the market will come into balance again in the first quarter or toward the middle of next year,” he said Nov. 28 in Sochi.
Even before the price tumble, Iran’s oil exports were already crumbling because of sanctions imposed over its nuclear program. Production is at a 20-year low, exports have fallen by half since early 2012 to 1 million barrels a day, and the rial has plummeted 80 percent on the black market, says the IMF. 
Lower oil may increase the pain on Iran’s population, though it may be insufficient to push its leaders to accept an end to the nuclear program, which they insist is peaceful.

‘Already Losing’ 

“The oil price decline is not a game changer for Iran,” said Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, who specializes on Iran. “The Iranians were already losing so many billions of dollars because of the sanctions that the oil price decline is just icing on the cake.” 
While oil’s decline wrenches oil-rich nations that squandered the profits from recent high prices, the world economy overall may benefit. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates a $20 drop in price adds 0.4 percentage point to growth of its members after two years. By knocking down inflation by 0.5 point over the same period, cheaper oil could also persuade central banks to either keep interest rates low or even add stimulus.
Energy accounts for 10 percent to 12 percent of consumer spending in European countries such as France and Germany, HSBC Holdings Plc said.

Nigerian Woes 

As developed oil-importing nations benefit, some of the world’s poorest suffer. Nigeria’s authorities, which rely on oil for 75 percent of government revenue, have tightened monetary policy, devalued the naira and plan to cut public spending by 6 percent next year. Oil and gas account for 35 percent of Nigeria’s economic output and 90 percent of its exports, according to OPEC.
“The current drop in oil prices poses stark challenges for Nigeria’s external and fiscal accounts and puts heavy pressure on the exchange rate,” Oliver Masetti, an economist at Deutsche Bank AG, said in a report this month. “If oil prices remain at their current lows, Nigeria will face tough choices.”
Even before oil’s rout, Venezuela was teetering. 
The nation is running a budget deficit of 16 percent of gross domestic product, partly because much of its declining oil production is sold domestically at subsidized prices. Oil is 95 percent of exports and 25 percent of GDP, OPEC says.
“Venezuela already qualifies for fiscal chaos,” Yergin said. 

Venezuelan Rioting 

The country was paralyzed by deadly riots earlier this year after police repressed protests about spiraling inflation, shortages of consumer goods and worsening crime.
“The dire state of the economy is likely to trigger renewed social unrest, while it seems that the government is running out of hard currency,” Capital Economics, a London research firm, wrote in a Nov. 28 report.
Declining oil may force the government to take steps to avoid a default including devaluing the currency, cutting imports, raising domestic energy prices and cutting subsidies shipments to poorer countries in the region, according to Francisco Rodriguez, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“Though all these entail difficult choices, default is not an appealing alternative,” he said. “Were Venezuela to default, bondholders would almost surely move to attach the country’s refineries and oil shipments abroad.”
China Bailout? 
In an address on state television Nov. 28, President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela would maintain social spending while pledging to form a commission to identify unnecessary spending to cut. He also said he was sending the economy minister to China to discuss development projects.
Mexico shows how an oil nation can build new industries and avoid relying on one commodity. Falling crude demand and prices in the early 1980s helped send the nation into a debt crisis.
Oil’s share of Mexico’s exports fell to 13 percent in 2013 from 38 percent in 1990, even as total exports more than quadrupled. Electronics and cars now account for a greater share of the country’s shipments. Though oil still accounts for 32 percent of government revenue, the Mexican government has based its 2015 budget on an average price of $79 a barrel.

November 23, 2014

NYT: The Secret Life of Passwords

A fascinating story on many levels. The story as published by the New York Times includes videos of personal anecdotes related to events surrounding a person's experiences linked to some element of passwords. The opening piece about Howard Lutnik is quite moving especially when you hear him discuss his unique situation in the accompanying audio. I suspect very few of us employ perfectly random passwords. If so, you should find this piece quite an interesting read.

The Secret Life of Passwords

We despise them – yet we imbue them with our hopes and dreams, our dearest memories, our deepest meanings. They unlock much more than our accounts.
    By Ian Urbina Video by Leslye Davis

Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the world’s largest financial-services firms, still cries when he talks about it. Not long after the planes struck the twin towers, killing 658 of his co-workers and friends, including his brother, one of the first things on Lutnick’s mind was passwords. This may seem callous, but it was not.

Like virtually everyone else caught up in the events that day, Lutnick, who had taken the morning off to escort his son, Kyle, to his first day of kindergarten, was in shock. But he was also the one person most responsible for ensuring the viability of his company. The biggest threat to that survival became apparent almost immediately: No one knew the passwords for hundreds of accounts and files that were needed to get back online in time for the reopening of the bond markets. Cantor Fitzgerald did have extensive contingency plans in place, including a requirement that all employees tell their work passwords to four nearby colleagues. But now a large majority of the firm’s 960 New York employees were dead. “We were thinking of a major fire,” Lutnick said. “No one in those days had ever thought of an entire four-to-six-block radius being destroyed.” The attacks also knocked out one of the company’s main backup servers, which were housed, at what until that day seemed like a safe distance away, under 2 World Trade Center.

Hours after the attacks, Microsoft dispatched more than 30 security experts to an improvised Cantor Fitzgerald command center in Rochelle Park, N.J., roughly 20 miles from the rubble. Many of the missing passwords would prove to be relatively secure — the “JHx6fT!9” type that the company’s I.T. department implored everyone to choose. To crack those, the Microsoft technicians performed “brute force” attacks, using fast computers to begin with “a” then work through every possible letter and number combination before ending at “ZZZZZZZ.” But even with the fastest computers, brute-force attacks, working through trillions of combinations, could take days. Wall Street was not going to wait.

Microsoft’s technicians, Lutnick recalled, knew that they needed to take advantage of two facts: Many people use the same password for multiple accounts, and these passwords are typically personalized. The technicians explained that for their algorithms to work best, they needed large amounts of trivia about the owner of each missing password, the kinds of things that were too specific, too personal and too idiosyncratic for companies to keep on file. “It’s the details that make people distinct, that make them individuals,” Lutnick said. He soon found himself on the phone, desperately trying to compartmentalize his own agony while calling the spouses, parents and siblings of his former colleagues to console them — and to ask them, ever so gently, whether they knew their loved ones’ passwords. Most often they did not, which meant that Lutnick had to begin working his way through a checklist that had been provided to him by the Microsoft technicians. “What is your wedding anniversary? Tell me again where he went for undergrad? You guys have a dog, don’t you? What’s her name? You have two children. Can you give me their birth dates?”

“Remember, this was less than 24 hours after the towers had fallen,” he said. “The fire department was still referring to it as a search-and-rescue mission.” Families had not accepted their losses. Lutnick said he never referred to anyone as being dead, just “not available right now.” He framed his questions to be an affirmation of that person’s importance to the company, he said. Conversations oscillated between sudden bawling and agonizing silences. “Awful,” he said. Sometimes it took more than an hour to work through the checklist, but Lutnick said he made sure he was never the one to hang up first.

In the end, Microsoft’s technicians got what they needed. The firm was back in operation within two days. The same human sentimentality that made Cantor Fitzgerald’s passwords “weak,” ultimately proved to be its saving grace.

November 18, 2014

A Crisis in Cultural Confidence

I was struck by the theme underlying Smith’s article about the phenomena of young folks leaving home to join extremist movements like violent, radical jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, that being the deeper issue of a society’s confidence in its identity, values, and purpose.

Cultures, like the people that comprise them, begin to falter and ultimately fade away when they lose their sense of identity, become fixated on things trivial and ephemeral, and fail to foster and maintain a higher-order set of values or at least principles that frame behavior and expectations. Oddly, people are drawn to strength, confidence, purpose, and meaning but few people in ‘leadership roles’ or institutions actually provide such, preferring instead to appeal to baser desires to gain short-term wins.

The warning sounded by Smith: if we don't know who we are and what we stand for and are unable to make a compelling case for why our principles, standards, and way of life are better than others, then we shouldn't be surprised to see other cultures that are more confident begin to eclipse our own and our youth drawn to them.

Why the Teenage Girls of Europe Are Joining ISIS

Because they want the same things that teenage boys want: a strong sense of meaning and purpose

By Lee Smith|October 22, 2014 12:00 AM

Teenage girls are the West’s center of gravity: Virtually all of Western pop culture, the key to our soft power, is tailored to the tastes of teenage girls. Through the wonders of information technology, the mobile phone mass-produced the mores and habits of phone-mad teenage girls locked in their bedrooms. Indeed, Western civilization is a success largely insofar as it has made the world a safe place for teenage girls—to go to school, get a job, and decide who and when to marry, or if they want to marry. When teenage girls turn away from One Direction and embrace ISIS, it means the West is losing.

A Washington Institute poll last week showed that the Islamic State has more support in Europe than it does in the Middle East. The poll reported that only 3 percent of Egyptians, 5 percent of Saudis, and under 1 percent of Lebanese “expressed a positive opinion of the IS.” On the other hand, 7 percent of U.K. respondents had a favorable view of the group, as did 16 percent of French polled—with 27 percent of French citizens between 18-24 responding favorably.

The numbers should hardly come as a surprise. Thousands of young European Muslims have already left the continent for the Middle East to help the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, build an authentic Islamic caliphate. Doubtless thousands more are on their way, to kill and die for an idea they believe in.

It is a striking fact that ISIS appeals not only to young men, but also young European women, many hundreds of whom have gone to Syria and Iraq to marry Islamic State fighters. Sure, some of them, like the 15-year-old French Jewish girl Nora el-Bathy, may have come to regret their decision. But that hardly alters the essential point: The girls sought out IS fighters because the West seems weak and unmanly and they pine for real men who are willing to kill and die for what they believe in.

Why? Europe’s got great health care, welfare, and lots of attractive young men and attractive women who, unlike the vast majority of women in the Middle East outside of Israel, are sexually available. So, why given a choice between a comfortable, if somewhat boring, life as a pharmacist in Hamburg, or fighting and dying in the desert, are thousands of Western Muslims opting for the latter?

Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for. They are leaving for the same reason that Europe’s Jews are moving to Israel: Strength and a sense of purpose can be found elsewhere, whether it’s ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameni, or the IDF.

European security services are worried that the large number of jihadist fighters with Western passports are destined to cause trouble should they come back to the continent. They’re worried, they say, about the special skills militants might obtain abroad and then employ at home—like Mehdi Nemmouche, the Frenchman who killed four people at the Brussels Museum in May.

European authorities are missing the much more salient point. Nemmouche may have gone to Syria to fight alongside extremist groups, but it’s not like firing an automatic rifle is a specialized skill you can only learn on a jihadi battlefield. It’s not like you have to travel to the Middle East to learn to hate Jews. The problem isn’t what European Muslims may come back with from the Middle East, but the fact that they’ve left Europe in the first place. Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate sounds like an inside joke to IS’s two most significant military cadres—the Arab tribes, and former Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. But to the Islamic State’s foreign fighters, especially its Western European contingent, the idea of a caliphate, ripped from the pages of Muslim history, resonates with a kind of existential authenticity missing from the vast and drab European suburbs warehousing Muslim youth.

And it’s precisely the violence of IS that appeals to the Europeans. For the Middle East, after all, despite Ayman al-Zawahiri’s alleged claims that IS is “too extreme” even for al-Qaida, there’s nothing exceptional about the bloodshed. The level of violence—beheadings, crucifixions, etc.—is par for the course in its regional politics. U.S. ally Saudi Arabia beheads criminals in the middle of Riyadh, and President Barack Obama’s new BFF in the region—an Iranian regime he calls rational—hangs criminals from construction cranes. But for the European fighters, the violence is more evidence of authenticity.

Yes, what IS stands for is exceedingly stupid and vicious—like one of the evil Transformer figures that destroys everything in its way. But this is what happens when there’s a vacuum: Ugly ideas fill space. Looking around, it’s hard not to think that the ugly, the vicious, and the stupid have the upper hand these days, with little resistance from the so-called defenders of the good.

Vladimir Putin is a hip-hop icon because he’s got Europe eating out of his hand—he rolls large and can turn off Europe’s lights any time he wants. He can go as far into Ukraine as he likes because he knows the United States won’t stop him. Obama said that Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon, but after already acknowledging the clerical regime’s right to enrich uranium, the White House may now allow Iran to keep even more centrifuges. Israel may have crushed Hamas over the course of a 40-day Operation Protective Edge, but here come the Western nations, led by the United States, hosting a donor conference that will relieve Hamas of all responsibility for having brought death and destruction to Gaza. Why? Because they can no longer summon the vitality necessary to take down a gang of bearded terrorists with RPGs, and so they are hoping instead to buy them off.

What Europe’s disaffected youth see is that the Western powers roll over and take it, again and again. The issue isn’t that we enjoy being humiliated. It’s just that we don’t really believe there’s anything worth fighting for. And that’s why thousands of Europe’s young Muslim men have taken sides against us—and why 15-year-old girls hold us in contempt.

Correction, October 23: French teenager Nora el-Bahty, a Muslim, was misidentified as Nora el-Bathy, Jew. The piece has been amended.


Lee Smith is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is also the author of the recently published The Consequences of Syria.

"Where Congress went wrong, a candid conversation"

Here is a lengthy article but I encourage you to take the time to read it. Drawing from some first-hand experience in a 2011-2012 Congressional campaign, I can (sadly) report that things are every bit as bad as described below. The Primary is the only cycle that really matters because that tees-up the candidate from each Party for the General election, candidates who have been selected by the most extreme ends of either party and by voters (those few who make time to cast a vote) who choose their candidate almost exclusively on the image that has been projected by the campaigns…images and the projection of such made possible by money. No money means no image, no means to project it, and therefore no votes. The average citizen has minimal interest in politics (‘politics’ in the classic sense of the processes that lead to legislation), minimal understanding of issues, and zero interest in being involved in any meaningful way. Reporters who deal with political coverage are usually either cynical (the older ones) or just as uninformed (the younger ones) as the typical voter and so the reporting does little to differentiate candidates in any helpful way (which would mean something if folks actually took sufficient interest in paying attention in the first place).

Those involved in politics decry the current state of affairs and want Washington to “put aside the rancorous partisan bickering and come together to govern effectively” but then reject out of hand any effort by their own elected official to step outside of an narrowly defined position on any issue. To compromise or negotiate is to betray the true faith. I saw up close the vying for party/ideological purity, with candidates each proclaiming how they were more conservative, or party-pure, or local, or religious (especially Christian), or working class, or non-political than their competitor(s). There was almost no time given to actually talk about the particulars or complexities of any specific issue and no real interest by the public to entertain such. There is a comprehensively unrealistic expectation by those on the margins that they will ‘win’ by ceding no ground, driven by the belief that nearly everyone else along the Bell-curve will swing to the absolute position they have staked out near the end of the spectrum.

Successful candidates feed red meat to the mob and are most productive when spending their time fund-raising, something the author’s interviews bear out.

Some choice bits from the article that really resonated:
“With the way we draw districts, with so few competitive districts, we've bifurcated ourselves as a civilization.”

"You can't be moderate. Who votes in primaries? You have a 10 percent turnout in a primary election in Georgia, and Republicans are 30 percent of the population. So 10 percent of 30 percent—that's 3 percent of the population voting to choose the nominee, and then if it's a multiperson race, and the winner gets 35 percent, that's one third of 3 percent—1 percent of the population chooses the nominee, who in a gerrymandered district will be the eventual member of Congress.”

“Many of them argued that because conflict is rewarded with attention, more actual conflict is fostered, which is then amplified by social media, which blasts powerful narratives at members around the clock—who cares if they're true?—largely obscuring their meek attempts to actually get something done. All of that drives what most members think of as a perception gap between the way things are and the way they seem to be. The "twenty-four-hour news cycle" was mentioned by nearly every one of the members I interviewed as something that makes their lives hell and, more important, makes governing very hard. "It's the coliseum," says Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas. "And in the coliseum, people get hurt for sport."”

“And any spare moment that in the past may have been used to build trust between the members of Congress is now spent begging for money, particularly since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which permitted unlimited spending by corporations or associations in support of political candidates. And it's not just "front line" members—those in tightly contested districts—who have to spend their allotment of hours per week at the call center, working donors. It's everybody. Some members report having to spend thirty hours a week on fundraising alone.”

“And with that, a final discovery: When you talk to so many members of Congress, you realize that those who are widely reviled can do much more damage than those who are widely respected can do good, and with half the effort.”
Some final thoughts of my own: If there is a solution, it lies in the hands of a citizenry who decides to care enough to spend some time actually understanding how and why their world works the way it does, to understand why short-term interests typically crowd-out long-term meaningful good, and who hold their elected representatives accountable for behaving responsibly -- aided by a press that decides to report the news and to conduct responsible investigative journalism instead of playing a partisan role that can be quite destructive. Again, reaching back to some recent experience, there were just a couple of reporters who took this stuff seriously...and one in particular who did a terrific job at legitimate investigative reporting. Unfortunately, too many people bought into the advertising campaigns and not enough into thinking about the solid journalism that was actually provided.

Hmmm...depending on the people...I'm reminded of Franklin's oft-quoted exchange with a lady following the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. "Well, Doctor, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?" "A Republic, if you can keep it."

It's really all about education, societal standards, and people giving a hoot. No shortcuts here.

I have had opportunities to have lengthy chats members of Congress, key staffers, and others deeply experienced in the political campaigning process. Their common observation: the public gets what it votes for.

Where Congress went wrong, a candid conversation

By Mark Warren

I spoke with ninety members of the House and Senate about what's gone so wrong in Congress. Sometimes it got a little emotional.

"I didn't get elected to Congress to not get things done—most people here want to get things done. I didn't get elected to Congress to make meaningless speeches on C-SPAN and tell lies about people. I didn't get elected to Congress to scare the hell out of the country and drive the sides further apart. I didn't get elected to Congress because I love politics—I hate politics, to be perfectly honest, and if I didn't before I got here, I do now… ."
The man is very angry, about the way his life is going, about Washington, about some things he has found himself saying that he wishes he could take back—he got carried away, total herd mentality, just so juvenile. People in public life should take stuff back more often, apologize more, and correct course more—now that would be making a real statement, maybe even be a breath of fresh air for the public. But he would just be screwing himself, he goes on, because those guys at Heritage Action or Club for Growth or Americans for Prosperity or some other goddamn group with an Orwellian name that thrives off of division and exists to create conflict might primary him, drop $3 million on his head, and he would be dead. And the way his district is drawn, you can't ever be conservative enough. He could get up at one of his town halls and say that the president is a transvestite Muslim from Mars and get a standing ovation. He wants to do the right thing and make a public stand for greater decency and civility in public life. But he can't. Oh, in his own quiet way he does. He has many friends who happen to be Democrats. "No matter what it seems, we don't hate each other," he says. "We are civil, we try to get to know each other, and most of us work hard to find areas of agreement, things that we can make progress on. People are stunned when I tell them that, because from the outside it just looks so bad."

At the same time, it's worse than he thought it would be before he was elected, the congressman says.


I saw the movie Fury a couple of weeks ago. Like any movie it had its strong and weak points but overall it did a superb job portraying the human element of war especially as it pertains to those involved in close combat and the hardening of attitudes among those who have seen and experienced too much for too long and still have more of a meat-grinding job ahead of them before their war is finished. If you saw and liked Das Boot (the 1981 movie about a WWII German submarine crew), you will be captivated by Fury in its portrayal of the claustrophobic intensity of tank-on-tank engagements. The special effects were superb, bringing the viewer into the gripping lethality of a battlefield. It isn't a pleasant movie to watch. Language is very rough but certainly what one hears among troops in the field and the movie is quite explicit in showing the casualties of battle but doesn’t dwell too long on any particular incident. It is much more intimate in focus than Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and more condensed, obviously, than the HBO-series Band of Brothers. It’s a Hollywood movie so there are almost by default implausible aspects to it but all-in-all I thought its intensity, gritty reality, and personal story lines made it worth watching. If you've an interest in seeing what close-combat in conventional war is like, Fury is a good place to start. Just don't invite your little ones to the show.