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The Yazidi

[ 112 ] August 7, 2014 |

I have a short piece up at the Washington Post discussing the difficulties of a relief operation for the Yazidi:

The plight of Yazidi refugees in the Sinjar mountains, hemmed in by Islamic State forces and relying on dwindling supplies of food and water, has brought renewed international attention to the war in Iraq. Some have suggested that the United States or United Nations facilitate airdrops to the starving, dehydrated refugees.

But this is more complicated than it seems.

In related news:

President Obama is considering airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine to address a humanitarian crisis among as many as 40,000 religious minorities in Iraq who have been dying of heat and thirst on a mountaintop after death threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, administration officials said on Thursday.

The president, in meetings with his national security team at the White House on Thursday morning, has been weighing a series of options ranging from dropping humanitarian supplies on Mount Sinjar to military strikes on the fighters from ISIS now at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official said.


[ 7 ] August 7, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat investigates the reputational issues associated with China’s oil rig in the South China Sea:

Who blinked? Who cares?

China’s decision to remove an oil rig from waters disputed by Vietnam has stirred a considerable degree of attention, almost as much as China’s decision to deploy the oil rig in the first place. Should the move be understood as indicative of a Chinese lack of nerve?  Did the policy to intimidate Vietnam fail?  Did Vietnamese legal and military efforts force China to “blink”  and thus rethink its maritime resource strategy in the region?

As I’ve argued many times in this space and others , policymakers and analysts waste an inordinate amount of time thinking about the reputational costs of their actions. A reputation for resolve supposedly contributes to credibility, which impresses friends and deters potential foes from doing things that we don’t like.


You Think It Can’t Get Worse…

[ 112 ] August 6, 2014 |

The Nation’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis has been legendarily bad, but this article may be the worst yet. In the process of wondering why traditional critics of American foreign policy have struggled to overcome the queasy feeling of associating with Vladimir Putin, Gilbert Doctorow chastises Noam Chomsky for being insufficiently quick on the trigger (“holding his silence until his distaste for American bullying of Russia and its aggressive hypocrisy outweighed his distaste for what he construed [my emphasis] as Mr. Putin’s authoritarian regime”), suggests that Robert Levgold would be more critical, were it not for fear of his colleagues, and argues, in apparently unironic terms, that Stephen Cohen has taken on the mantle of “Great American Dissident.”

None of that beats this paragraph, though:

If Putin can rise to the challenge and, on the strength of his overwhelming popularity, rein in the oligarchs further, curb corruption more and successfully launch the reindustrialization that import substitution invites, he will finally diversify the economy away from mineral extraction and Russia may genuinely prosper. This in turn will take the country along its way on the path to full-fledged democracy.

Yep. Some might think that joining the WTO, encouraging heavy FDI, increasing gas production, and launching a wide-ranging assault on civil liberties are odd ways to achieve import substitution, move away from mineral extraction, pursue a path to full-fledged democracy. But then, I lack the insight of the editors of the Nation.

Let’s be as clear as possible; Katrina vanden Heuvel is making some egregiously bad decisions by allowing Stephen Cohen to manage the direction of Russia coverage in the Nation.  It’s going to cause longterm damage to the magazine, and those who are in anyway close to the decision-making of the editorial board should do their best to limit this damage.

Egregious Attacks on Academic Freedom

[ 119 ] August 6, 2014 |

Corey Robin:

Until two weeks ago, Steven Salaita was heading to a job at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies. He had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech; everything seemed sewn up. Now the chancellor of the University of Illinois has overturned Salaita’s appointment and rescinded the offer. Because of Israel.

Read the rest.

The Strategic Problems in Ukraine

[ 82 ] August 5, 2014 |

It looks as if Ukrainian forces are making slow, measured progress against pro-Russian separatists.  If that’s true, this is how I read the rest of the game playing out:


The Ukrainian government wants to re-occupy as much of Ukraine as possible, while at the same time forestalling Russian military action and preserving the hope of a positive economic relationship with Russia. Ukraine also wants a clear message of support from NATO, although it’s not obvious that anyone in Kiev expects that membership will be forthcoming.   I suspect that the Ukrainian government is willing to risk some degree of military conflict; a short, sharp defeat at the hands of Russian forces would be painful, but would also help placate Ukrainian nationalists, and would cement the NATO commitment to support (if not defend) Ukraine in the future.


NATO has many partners, and they have a variety of different interests.  None want to see war with Russia, however, and few if any would like to see a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Beyond that, NATO’s interests are in preserving an economic and political relationship with Russia, while maximizing Kiev’s control over eastern Ukraine.  Tolerance for risk on the latter point varies considerably, but is only in a very few cases (perhaps Poland) as high as in Kiev.

I suspect that NATO will continue to play a supportive role, trying to modify Russia’s behavior with sanctions and the threat of sanctions. It will provide some material and intelligence support for Kiev, while struggling to prevent Ukraine from becoming over-optimistic about the extent of this support.


Putin does not want to invade Ukraine; if he actively sought this end, he would already have ordered military action, rather than allowing the new Ukrainian government to consolidate power and retake some lost territory.  He wants two things; to minimize US and European sanctions, and to maximize the size of the buffer zones in the disputed regions.  However, Putin has to contend with two other factions.  Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Russian nationalists in Russia are both free to seek maximal gains, and can (in tandem) apply pressure to Putin.  Putin is hardly invulnerable domestically, and has to take the strength of the nationalists seriously, especially as he’s come to depend on them.

With the separatists apparently no longer holding the upper hand, Russia has two tools; energy, and its military.  Energy sanctions are a two way street, as both Europe and Russia lose through a prolonged disruption. The military balance, however, strongly favors Russia; the Russian military is stronger than it was in 2008, and enjoys a more favorable operational position. If Ukrainian government forces push to far, I suspect that the balance will shift and Putin will order much more aggressive military action against Ukraine.  This will preserve the buffer zones, placate nationalists, and serve as a warning to the other post-Soviet republics. It will also incur greater sanctions, but if Russia avoids a drive on Kiev these will be manageable.


My guess is that we’ll see a short, conventional war of maneuver between Russia and Ukraine, that the Russian will win, but will restrain its activities to Donetsk, Luhansk, and environs. It’s going to be very difficult for the Ukrainian military to restrain itself short of complete victory over the separatists, and the drive for victory will probably spur Russian intervention.  With luck, however, the war will be quick, only moderately destructive, and the political aftermath will be manageable.


The Ottoman Empire, Rent Control, and Development

[ 53 ] August 5, 2014 |

The last redoubt of the Ottoman Empire is under siege:

In 1945, Ertogroul Osman moved into a two-bedroom walk-up apartment on the top floor of a three-story commercial building on Lexington Avenue south of 74th Street. Though it had a handsome mansard roof at the time and a prime uptown location, the stout 34-foot-wide property was practically a hovel compared with the 124-acre Yildiz Palace in old Constantinople where Mr. Osman was born and where his grandfather Abdul Hamid II ruled from 1876 to 1909. Had the empire not been dissolved, Mr. Osman would have taken the throne in 1994. Instead he spent 64 years in the same apartment until he died in 2009 on a trip to Istanbul with his second wife, Her Imperial Highness Zeynep Osman, who had joined him on Lexington Avenue after their marriage in 1991. Like her husband, Princess Zeynep’s royal family had had to flee its home in Afghanistan in the 1920s.

Now Zeynep, an Istanbul native, fears she may be forced out of her New York home. After her building was sold in 2011 for $10.1 million, her new landlord, Avi Dishi, paid a visit to the 1,600-square-foot apartment that October.

“The first words out of his mouth were: ‘I want you out. I paid too much for this building to have you here,’ ” Princess Zeynep, 69, recalled, sitting inside her large living room sharing platters of cookies and crackers — a courtly gesture she said she also extended to her landlord, along with any other guests.

What’s remarkable about this story is that it involves a conflict between the exceedingly wealthy heir of two imperial heritages and a land developer, and the former is by far the more sympathetic figure. Or perhaps that’s not surprising at all…

Via M Lister.


[ 94 ] August 4, 2014 |
"Japanese battleship Nagato" by IJN - The Maru Special No. 29 "Japanese Submarine Tenders and Auxiliary Submarine Tenders". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Japanese battleship Nagato” by IJN – The Maru Special No. 29 “Japanese Submarine Tenders and Auxiliary Submarine Tenders”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

As occasionally hinted over the past year, I’ve been considering a book project built around a collection of Sunday Battleship Blogging posts of yore. This project may finally be coming to fruition, but I’m struggling with the title. As Thucydides once said, “when you’re too lazy to think for yourself, crowdsource it.”

Thus, my query to all of you: What would be a good title for collection of sixty-some-odd vignettes on battleships? The winning entry (if any) receives an autographed copy of the book, assuming it all comes together.

“Not One Will Be Alive When a Hundred Years Are Gone By”

[ 18 ] August 3, 2014 |

Reading about the guns of August puts me in the mood for Herodotus:

And now, as he looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept.

Then Artabanus, the king’s uncle (the same who at the first so freely spake his mind to the king, and advised him not to lead his army against Greece), when he heard that Xerxes was in tears, went to him, and said:-

“How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago! Then thou didst congratulate thyself; and now, behold! thou weepest.”

“There came upon me,” replied he, “a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.”

Find a Way to Hurt Them

[ 4 ] August 3, 2014 |

My latest listical for National Interest takes a look at five potential areas of arms collaboration between Russia and China:

The continued deterioration of relations between Russia and NATO may not yet have resulted in a new Cold War, but it’s undoubtedly produce an environment in which Russia has independent reasons to try to hurt the United States.

While the arms trade between China and Russia exploded after the fall of the Soviet Union, shipments of major systems slowed in the early part of last decade.  Part of the reason was demand; China felt that it no longer needed to pay top dollar for Russian systems that it could build itself.  Another reason, however, involved Russian intellectual property concerns stemming from Chinese copying, and potential export, of Russian military systems.  This made Russia reluctant to export its most sophisticated weapons.


LGM is Social! We’re Really Very Friendly!

[ 97 ] August 2, 2014 |

In light of recent lineup additions, never a bad time to remind of our social media connections:

LGM twitter: @lefarkins
Spencer: @vacuumslayer
Farley: @drfarls
Lemieux: @LemieuxLGM
Watkins: @djw172
Brockington: @dbrock27
Kaufman: @scottekaufman
Loomis: @ErikLoomis
Attewell: @StevenAttewell

And here’s the entire list, if you’re into that sort of thing.

We’re also available on Facebook, and on Google+ (whatever that is).

Chinese Airpower

[ 15 ] August 1, 2014 |

The next Guns N’ Roses album? No, my latest at the Diplomat:

Ankit’s recent post (building on Rebecca Grant’s  longer list at Air Force Magazine) opens the question of whether China has structured its military institutions such that they support the sophisticated development and dynamic use of military aviation.

In short, how does the organizational configuration of Chinese airpower matter for how China will fight, plan to fight, and procure?

There is no single optimal way to organize military forces. Different organizational constellations produce different outcomes for warfighting, procurement, and strategic thought. Reorganizations are costly, and shouldn’t be undertaken at the drop of a hat, but nevertheless provide an opportunity to better align organizational imperatives with national goals.

The Goeben’s Saga Begins…

[ 6 ] August 1, 2014 |

One hundred years ago today, Goeben and Breslau were preparing their escape…

In the years prior to the war, Germany deployed naval squadrons around the world to protect its burgeoning colonial empire. War came so quickly that some of these squadrons were trapped in unfriendly waters, chased by superior British forces.

Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau amounted to a respectable, if not formidable, capability. Germany had two allies in the Mediterranean—Italy and Austria—but Berlin worried the two traditional enemies might fight each other, instead.

The Germans were unprepared for war. Goeben—displacing 25,000 tons and packing 10 11-inch guns—badly needed a refit, as well as refueling, and Mediterranean allies weren’t ready to accommodate the vessel. Vienna still hoped it could avoid war with Britain. Italy was unhelpful.

Longtime LGM readers will recall that I wrote a much longer version of the story several years ago.

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