Archive for April, 2013

Game of Thrones, High Altitude Edition

Walter Russell Mead has aptly characterized the ongoing re-working of strategic relationships in Asia as the “Game of Thrones,” and he takes notice of the latest developments on the disputed Chinese-Indian border.

The government on Friday for the first time admitted that People’s Liberation Army(PLA) troops had intruded as much as 19 km inside Indian territory to pitch their tents there, even as it kept a third flag meeting between local commanders in eastern Ladakh “on hold” to give China “time and space” to withdraw its soldiers on its own.

The move has to be seen in at least 4 different contexts.  First, there’s the simple straightforward ongoing border dispute with India.  India still has bad memories of having lost that war, and is clearly shying away from a direct confrontation this time.  It doesn’t have the organization to take on the Chinese right now, and doesn’t have the irredentist passion that existed in, say, pre-1914 France.  Anyone who’s ever tried to climb a 14er, or has followed a rescue from such a peak, understands the difficulty of conducting operations in such an environment.  So the Chinese may have stolen a 12-mile push forward, but it’s not as though there’s much more than pride at stake here.

Of course, Chinese-Indian tensions now extend well beyond the Himalayas.  As Robert Kaplan as pointed out, the Chinese have made Pakistan a strategic ally, with an eye towards an outlet to the Indian Ocean; the two countries are engaged in a struggle for economic influence in Burma, which has a direct bearing on the question of who will end up being responsible for naval security in the vital Straits of  Malacca.  And the Indians have taken suitable umbrage at Chinese resource claims in the South China Sea.  China’s Hiamalayan gambit can also be seen as an effort to put India back on its heels.

Not only does this serve as a remind to India of who’s in front right now, it also reminds others in the region that India can’t protect them, and of their own, weaker positions vis-a-vis China.  And globally, it calls into question the United States’s willingness and ability to continue to stabilize the situation in Asia.

Thus the fruits of taking punch at your strongest rival in his weakest spot.

The risks, of course, are they someday you’ll misjudge your own strength or your neighbors’ willingness to resist such incursions, even as your strengthen their resolve.  China, without serious allies in Asia (unless you count Russia’s willingness to make distracting trouble elsewhere), now has simmering direct or proxy disputes with India, Burma, the Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

It’s also worth remembering that China’s population is becoming older and unbalanced, with more men that women, thanks to sex-selective abortions, putting it in a mid-term (no longer a long-term) demographic bind.  This, even as the population grows increasingly displeased with Communist Party rule, has led the Party to stoke nationalist flames.

The analogy to pre-WWI Germany is looking increasingly apt, with baleful possibilities for all concerned.

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It’s About Politics, Not Governance, With Guns

As the US Senate begins today’s debate on gun control, Coloradoans can be forgiven for having a feeling of deja vu.  That’s because the debate in Congress is intended to mimic the one in Colorado, and because it’s about politics, not about governance.

The one piece of the president’s broad gun control agenda that has survived public scrutiny is background checks on sales.  This is a broadly popular idea, and even gun owners support it by large margins in poll after poll.  But Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute has shown that in Congress, as in Colorado, while the bill will be sold as checks on sales, it actually does much, much more:

While the woman is out of town on a business trip for two weeks, she gives the gun to her husband or her sister. If the woman lives on a farm, she allows all her relatives to take the rifle into the fields for pest and predator control — and sometimes, when friends are visiting, she takes them to a safe place on the farm where they spend an hour or two target shooting, passing herover gun back and forth. At other times, she and her friends go target shooting in open spaces of land owned by the National Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

Or perhaps the woman is in a same-sex civil union, and she allows her partner to take her gun to a target range one afternoon. Another time, she allows her cousin to borrow the gun for an afternoon of target shooting. If the woman is in the Army Reserve and she is called up for an overseas deployment, she gives the gun to her sister for temporary safekeeping.

One time, she learns that her neighbor is being threatened by an abusive ex-boyfriend, and she lets this woman borrow a gun for several days until she can buy her own gun. And if the woman becomes a firearms-safety instructor, she regularly teaches classes at office parks, in school buildings at nights and on weekends, at gun stores, and so on. Following the standard curriculum of gun-safety classes (such as NRA safety courses), the woman will bring some unloaded guns to the classroom, and under her supervision, students will learn the first steps in how to handle the guns, including how to load and unload them (using dummy ammunition). During the class, the firearms will be “transferred” dozens of times, since students must practice how to hand a gun to someone else safely. As a Boy Scout den mother or 4-H leader, the woman may also transfer her gun to young people dozens of times while instructing them in gun safety.

These are not far-out scenarios.  Kopel notes that “transfers” are defined very specifically in the bill, with specific exceptions.  And lest “transfer” be read narrowly to exclude loans, where someone retains possession, time limits on such transfers are laid out.  In order to escape such notice, guns could be “gifted” to family members, but presumably those gifts would be considered taxable events.

The bill does include some exceptions, designed to provide plausible deniability to senators who want to claim they’ve made reasonable allowances.  Those exceptions are subject to such severe restraints so as to make them all but meaningless.  This was largely the same legislative and debate strategy used here in Colorado, and for fun, count the number of times reference is made on the floor of the Senate to what happened here.

All of these scenarios will fly under the radar.  The plan is for the press to continue to repeat the “40% of sales” myth and to deflect attention from the real burdens of the proposed law.  Western Democrats will be given enough cover to present their votes as reasonable to the folks back home, and Republicans opposing them will have the Hobson’s Choice of either caving (and dispiriting and disillusioning their supporters) or appearing obstructionist and unreasonable.

It’s the same strategy that the Democrats used with the Violence Against Women Act: take a non-controversial piece of legislation, load it up with partisan baggage, and dare the other side to vote against it.  It was a key element in the 2012 campaign theme of a “War on Women,” and it didn’t really have anything to do with governing.  Obama and the Democrats now hope to repeat the same trick, and set up the 2014 Congressional campaigns as one of the Republicans against the Suburbs, newly-competitive territory which the Dems see as the key to long-term victory.

The bills, largely written by Mayor Bloomberg of New York, suffer from the same lack of public process, examination, amendment, and debate as Obamacare and the ill-thought-out, and supposedly much simpler, magazine ban  rushed through the New York State legislature in the wake of Newtown.  That’s by design; while the mayor and the president may be true believers in disarming citizens, President Obama is a greater believer in winning elections.

To thwart this strategy, the Republicans will have to do more than filibuster.  Their amendments – and thus the floor debate – will have to be focused on the question of “transfers” and the absurd outcomes that this bill creates.  They’ll never have a better time to make their case publicly.

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Even A Failed Nork EMP Attack Is Bad

In the wake of Kim Jong Un’s loud talk from and missile movements within the Hermit Kingdom, there has been much speculation about what he’s actually up to.  My own pet theory is that it’s an EMP attack, the sort that would wipe out the electrical grid, fry a great deal of electronic infrastructure, and more or less set us back to 1850 (although we’d have battery-powered devices and personal generators available for a while).

The odds of North Korea actually being able to pull off such an attack successfully remain thankfully low, but even failure shouldn’t leave us too complacent.  Here are a number of ways in which such an attack could fall short or be thwarted, and yet not really let us breathe much of a sigh of relief.

  • Technical failure: Obviously, such an attack is still a tricky thing to pull off.  The missile has the launch, the warhead has to deploy and explode properly.  But men are solving technical problems all the time, and the easiest ones to solve are those that have already been solved by someone else.
  • Our Countermeasures Discourage the Attack: In part, this is a variant of the last. Technical countermeasures, such as THAAD, are always subject to technical solutions. In part, it’s also a strategic thinning of our defenses, since once up, we’ll never really be able to let these stand down.
  • THAAD: This is probably the best option. In war, our actually using a weapon is an intelligence coup for the enemy, and don’t think there aren’t other enemies who’ll be looking.  But a THAAD intercept from a forward deployment won’t tell them much they don’t already know, since THAAD has been around for a while.  And a successful intercept of a presumed attack launch provides a lot of pretext go ahead and bomb all sorts of North Korean missile and nuclear facilities.  It also suggests they don’t have a real warhead (since an EMP attack is a high-altitude explosion), making a nuclear response to a sustained bombing campaign not a credible threat.
  • Our ASAT:  We actually have tested several successful anti-satellite systems, most famously the plane-launched ASAT in the 1980s, most recently a ship-based weapon designed to send a message of deterrence to the Chinese.  My understanding is that the tracking needed for this weapons to work reliable will only work once the warhead is no longer being boosted, so it’s kind of a last line of defense.  You would always rather hit things earlier rather than later, since that cedes far less of the actual attack timeline to the enemy.
  • Chinese ASAT: We could also be talking to the Chinese about their ASAT.  Or having the Chinese talk to the Norks about their ASAT.  This is probably the worst option, since even if the weapon isn’t actually used, it puts our defense in the hands of a primary adversary.

A word about ASAT weapons in general.  The administration has historically been very cool on the idea of ASATs, mostly for the same ideological reasons that lead it to think that unilateral nuclear disarmament is a good idea.  In 2011, they were talking ASAT limitations with the EU – as though the EU were our major worry on that front.  One hopes that, just as the current crisis has led them to rethink their position on missile defense, it has also led them to reconsider their position on ASAT weapons.

Ultimately, my own feeling is that an EMP attack remains an extraordinarily cost-effective temptation for the Norkos or the Iranians to try against us.  The failure, defeat, or deterrence of one attack shouldn’t lead us to be complacent about what can happen, or the need to harden our power generation infrastructure against a future assault.

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