Some perspective on the COVID-19 coronavirus and global response

Over the weekend there have been some major, and on the surface rather frightening developments surrounding the corornavirus outbreak that started in China last year.  So how bad is it, and should you be freaking out?  When the media starts using words like “pandemic” people start to panic.  But the bottom line on this situation is there is more reason to worry about the panic than the pandemic.  Here’s some perspective:

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.  In English, that’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-related (SARS) CoronaVirus.  Here’s what the beast looks like …

CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312.

Part of the problem is that the info coming out of China is pretty obviously crap.  We just don’t have a good picture of things like how contagious it is, and in particular nobody really believes the statistics on the number of cases and associated mortality rate.  That has given rise to lots of crazy rumors and fear mongering. But it seems like the following is true of COVID-19, based on reliable sources:

  1. It’s pretty contagious, and apparently can live outside a host for longer than stuff like the flu.  That means it’s easier to spread indirectly (someone touches a surface and leaves some virus, somebody comes along a day or so later and picks it up);
  2. A lot of people seem to just get mild cold/flu like symptoms – often so mild they are don’t realize they are sick with it, but are shedding virus everywhere;
  3. “Incubation” times are therefore suspect, and the 14 day time frame is problematic – some suggest up to 28 days;
  4. Some people do get pretty sick from it. It’s not completely clear yet just why, but aside from people who are normally vulnerable to respiratory infections (young children, the elderly and immune compromised), it seems smokers are more susceptible to getting really sick from COVID-19.  If it triggers pneumonia it gets bad (duh);
  5. With treatment/support care, it’s very manageable – just not in a crowded and populated megacity like Wuhan, etc. where it can spread quickly and stress health care systems.
  6. The test kits are limited in number, and may have a high false negative rate (in other words, say you don’t have it when in fact you have been infected).

Beware the term “pandemic.”  It conjures up visions of the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, and Monty Python Skits.  But all that word means is, per the World Health Organization, A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.  It really doesn’t say how bad it will be – just the flu, or something a lot worse.  COVID-19 is at the low end of that spectrum.  It seems like the mortality rate (the fraction of people who will die if they get it) is low, most likely less than the normal seasonal flu.  So, more contagious than the flu (bad), but perhaps less deadly (good).  Which means if you are reasonably healthy and take normal precautions (hand washing, don’t touch your face if you can avoid it, etc.) you probably won’t get it and if you do, it probably won’t be bad.  If you are in a vulnerable population (elderly, are immuno-compromised, or have lung problems) or are a moron smoker, be more careful and seek medical attention if you start to feel cold or flu like symptoms.

That said, the reaction to the virus will very likely cause far more damage than the virus itself.  Economic indicators are already trending sharply down on news from Italy that there are several outbreaks there, with authorities (IMNSHO overreacting) by putting in place quarantines.  This, combined with the virtual shut-down of production of many vital global exports from China (including a lot of medical supplies we have stupidly outsourced there just to save a couple bucks), means a global recession is inevitable at this point.  When it is announced that there are hundreds if not thousands of cases in the US, people will freak out even though as noted above there seems to be no more reason to freak out over COVID-19 than over the normal influenza virus.  Be prepared for a very rocky couple of months as authorities try to find a balance between trying to look like they are doing something, and causing more damage than the disease.  Once spring sets in (likely early this year according to both science and rodent based forecasts), it’s likely that like the seasonal flu, the infection rates will drop.  But by then the economic damage will have been done.

Bottom line: the disease itself doesn’t seem that bad in perspective (not to dismiss the potential for a lot of people to get sick, and an unfortunate number die), but the economic impacts may be tough on your 401-K, a lot of people will be hurt by an economic downturn, and there will likely be some shortages of things from China (and maybe elsewhere) due to actions (and over-reactions) by authorities and breathless reporting that is likely to kick in to high gear today.  I know it’s a lot to ask, just be sensible 🙂

Addendum: some links for information, and an analysis of the Diamond Princess data.

Do satellite images show the Chinese burning thousands of bodies outside Wuhan?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:  No, here’s the background:  There are a number of reports floating around that are implying that satellite data is showing high Sulphur Dioxide emissions outside Wuhan, China,and that means they are secretly burning thousands of bodies.  It’s being widely reported, especially on “alternative” news sites based on images from “windy.com”.  Here one such image (screenshot from windy.com):

Well, it’s just not true.

There is a huge amount of satellite data available on-line.  It takes a lot of experience to interpret this data.  Unfortunately, there are people who think they can just download it and make pretty pictures, and understand what is going on. (There are also groups who know better, but do this to deliberately spread misinformation/propaganda  – looking at you, Bellingcat).   In this case, what the satellites are seeing are emissions from the huge steel mills located just outside the city.  Here are the hot spots from the VIIRS satellite for yesterday (February  9, 2020), overlaid over an October 17 2019 satellite image from Google Earth (NOTE: The image is static; the satellite hot spot overlay is not .. see addendum below).  You can clearly see this in a big industrial complex.

And for comparison, same background, but using Feb. 2017 (three years ago).  Virtually identical hot spots … 

Sulfur Dioxide emissions are in fact up, but that is because the kilns have to be kept hot, and emissions during a production shutdown are different from that during operations.

The Chinese are not exactly being honest and forthright about what is going on with respect to 2019-nCOV (the “coronavirus” outbreak there).  In the past they have often downplayed the impact of natural disasters, especially casualties and economic impacts.  That lack of transparency leads to crazy rumors, and this is yet another example.

 

Addendum:  The hot spots do change from day to day depending on plant operations.  Here is what it looked like last year … only couple of hot spots, but both in consistent locations with 2017 and 2020 …

Iran, Iraq, and the attack on Soleimani (Updated 6 Jan)

The news that the US conducted a “precision attack”, “preemptive strike”, “assassination”, “act of war”, whatever you want to call it, and killed not only the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and a PMF leader (perhaps legitimate targets), but a number of Iraqi government security personnel has roiled Near East Asia and put the world on edge for what will happen next. I won’t spend much time discussing whether or not it made any sense to conduct this attack because the reason why it was a bad idea is obvious from the analysis of what might happen next.  But I will say it was an irresponsible thing to do, especially in the where and when it was done.

My position is that overt, public attacks on the leadership of sovereign nations outside of war is highly questionable both from a legal and effectiveness standpoint, and causes more harm than good. There must be a bright line between war and judicial/legal enforcement.  Of course there is a third way – the covert op way – but that’s a different and complex discussion.  I certainly won’t argue that Soleimani wasn’t behind a lot of actions that the US views as terrorism (a term I dislike in this case – what we are seeing is asymmetric warfare conducted by a nation-state).  If it’s that bad (and and argument could be made it is), collect allies, take it to congress, declare war, follow international law, take action.  Here comes the angry rant: In my opinion, in this case any analyst that thought this was a good idea should be fired.  You could put the skull of anyone associated with this operation up to your ear, and you would hear the ocean.  This was next level dumb.  Yes, I’m angry about this because it puts a lot of lives at risk, it violates international law, and compromises the US moral and strategic position both in the region and globally.

My position isn’t based on domestic politics – that’s not an attack on the Trump Administration, because Iran policy has been stupid for a long time, and the concept of assassination by targeted strike in third countries with which we are not at war has been around a long time; in modern times, the Clinton administration used cruise missiles, the Bush II/Obama and now Trump admins use drones. It has distorted US foreign policy, and should stop.  OK, now that’s out of the way, lets gaze into the crystal ball and try to figure out what it means.

Some in the US are hoping on the Iranians “get the message” and back off their support for various proxies around the Middle East; but I think a lot of analysts (not just Republicans, but those on the neoconservative foreign policy wing of the Democrat Party a well) are actually hoping Iran will react directly and give the US an opportunity (excuse) to execute a “regime change” operation.  Only the second has much of any chance of happening – and given the “success” of the last three attempts at regime change operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) it’s hard to see how an outright war with Iran could play out successfully.

How will Iran react, and when?  My guess is nothing happens until Monday (6 Jan) for several reasons.  First, they will want to exploit the mourning period (three days), and fire up the masses.  Second, they will need time to come up with a plan (or, more likely, decide which pre-planned response to trigger) and implement it.  Finally, they are watching developments in the world, especially Iraq.

I don’t think the Government of Iran will act until they see how the Government of Iraq reacts to the fact that the US violated our agreement on keeping troops in their country, not to mention quaint concepts like international norms and law.  Iran has the high ground diplomatically right now, and won’t want to squander it.  If the US is thrown out of Iraq, its position in Syria is utterly undermined, and much of US containment policy against Iran unravels.  If asked to leave and the US refuses, it will rapidly get bogged down in a major counter-insurgency operation in Iraq that will make actions against Iran difficult or impossible.  Even if, ultimately, Iraq decides not to take drastic action, it has soured the relationship and will make future operations much more difficult. Iraq is a very complex place.  Yes, some are cheering this attack, and others are plotting revenge for them.  But for those in the middle, who don’t really like either the US or Iran, it has placed them in a very difficult position and moved the balance towards Iran.   This is why it was utterly foolish for the US to attack Suleimani on Iraqi soil – especially killing Iraqi security forces in the process.  It totally undermines an already iffy presence and will lead to the US being forced out, or, more likely, bogged down and compromised.

At this point, neither side is in a position to back down unless there are no further incidents by either side, but that doesn’t seem likely, as the US has conducted additional strikes Saturday, and Iran feels it must respond.  Worse, the problem is that Iranian proxies, who have a long personal relationship with Soleimani, may not give Iran time to let things play out.  They may give the US the excuse it needs, and any attack by a proxy will be played as an attack by Iran, even if Iran didn’t want or ask for it.

Most media analysts are discussing this in primarily military terms.  The force structures and objectives are so different, it’s almost nonsensical.  Certainly the US could, at some cost, eliminate the Iranian military in a few days or weeks at most.  Only Russia or China could potentially stand up to an all out assault from the US, and those would be bloody for both sides with “victory” unlikely for anyone but the cockroaches.  But Iran just doesn’t have the technology or resources to stand up to a US conventional attack.  It won’t be as easy as some might think, but Iran has no conventional chance at all.

However,for the most part Iran won’t fight conventionally, even if attacked that way.  Iran could inflict harm on the US via asymmetric means (aka terrorism), but I think this is somewhat overplayed with respect to the “homeland”.  Europe and the Middle East are another matter, and regional disruptions are assured if this escalates.   Those analysts discussing the economic aspects seem to be focused on the impact on Iran, and the fact that the US has enough domestic energy (oil) production to ride out major disruptions in Persian Gulf Oil that would result from an all out conflict. Some would even argue the US would benefit – China is very dependent on Middle East energy, so some also argue it’s a win-win: take out Iran, disrupt China.  That’s probably correct from a narrow view, but this misses a vital point.  Despite stock market trends, the US economic situation is extremely fragile on a number of levels – it would take a very long post just to provide the background on that.

While it is true that US oil production is rather high, it is based on the rapidly diminishing returns from fracking and shale oil.  It might ride out a short crisis – and that may be part of the rush to war, since once the boom ends, the US will again be vulnerable to Middle East disruptions.  But the main problem is how intertwined global economies and credit markets are.  The view that a oil disruption induced financial crisis would remain confined to China or Europe is probably wishful thinking.  If Iran (or proxies) attack Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, disrupting supplies, it may cause the economic dominoes to start falling across Asia and Europe, ultimately impacting the US.  Interestingly Russia would likely be little impacted by all this, in part because of US and European sanctions, which has forced them to insulated themselves somewhat from the Western economic system.  And of course they have significant oil and gas supplies, and could profit from the situation.  A few are making the utterly ridiculous argument that Trump is Putin’s puppet, and because Russia might benefit directly from this conflict they are orchestrating it.  Any serious student of Russian foreign policy would know this is absurd.  Russia has been pushing for stability and stabilization in the region – on their terms, to be sure, but if they were given advance work of the strike (and there is absolutely zero evidence they did) they would have opposed it.

A further revelation came this Sunday, that Soleimani may have been involved in passing messages between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran to de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen (and the resulting attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure).    If so, that makes the US strike even more inflammatory and questionable.

So, while the reasons are complex, ultimately the risk isn’t war – bad as that might be for those involved – the risk is that conflict will trigger a major economic crisis.

 

Twenty Questions (and answers, sort of) on the House Report, Impeachment, Russia, and Ukraine

If you don’t want to wade through all 300 pages of the House “Intelligence” Committee Report (which, unless you take proper precautions, will shave 50 points off your IQ), read the Republican rebuttals (which will take care of any remaining points), and are unable to read thousands of pages of documents in multiple languages, research at least 30 years or so of complex and often obscure history to understand this in context here’s twenty questions and answers (sort of, with a dose of snark) to clear things up:

  1. Did Trump and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  2. Did they commit crimes? Almost certainly. Trump’s people seem to be amateurs at political crime.
  3. Did Biden and his minions abuse their authority for personal gain with respect to Ukraine? Absolutely.
  4. Did they commit crimes? Perhaps, but Biden is experienced at committing crimes legally so maybe not technically in violation of US law.  Ethically?  Oh, yeah …
  5. Did Russia attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  6. Did Ukraine attempt to influence the 2016 election? Absolutely.
  7. Wait – did any foreign country *not* attempt to influence the 2016 election? I doubt it. They’d be crazy not to, given the US is by far the world’s largest military power (and doesn’t hesitate to blow stuff up for “reasons”) as well as one of the top two economic powers depending on how you crunch the numbers, and there too it throws its weight around based more on domestic politics than sound foreign policy. US administrations of both ilks generally don’t follow international law they don’t like, freely abrogates treaties, and only participates in multilateral organizations when it can get its way. So about the only way to influence US foreign policy is to attempt to influence domestic US elections, and most countries do it, some far more overtly than Russia or Ukraine did (Israel, for example, or China.). And of course the US actively influences, interferes, and overthrows elections worldwide at will … so it sort of deserves it. I’ve seen nothing in what Russia did in 2016 that is technically different than what the US did in Ukraine in the lead up to the 2014 Maidan revolution.  And, again, many other countries have used similar techniques to influence US politicians, elections, and policy.
  8. Isn’t (pick something you don’t like from (1) through (7) above) just a conspiracy theory? More than likely, that thing you don’t like is at least partly if not mostly true with just enough uncertainty/fiction/error/bad reporting to allow you to discount it and keep believing the stuff you want to believe – which is also probably mostly true, but lacks context and your conclusions are just as wrong, without context, as the “conspiracy theory” you just dismissed.
  9. Is Russia our enemy? It’s not straightforward, but even though there are some problematic aspects and some serious issues, essentially No.
  10. Why do so many in the US Government hate Russia? It’s really complicated, mostly involving history, ego, bias, ignorance, and convenience. And money and resources. Lots and Lots of Money.
  11. Is Ukraine our friend? It’s not straightforward, but even though the majority of average people in Ukraine are great, and trapped in a horrible geopolitical trap, essentially No. Unless you don’t mind Nazis, or can be bribed (or better yet both). Then, yes, a lot of the current Ukrainian Government and Military is your friend.
  12. Why do so many in the US Government love Ukraine? Also really complicated, but mostly because they hate Russia for various reasons. But also money. Did I mention money?
  13. Is the Russia-Ukraine conflict a vital US concern? Really hard to see any vital US interests in it, in the great scheme of things, and a lot of the conflict is on various levels the fault of the US and NATO.
  14.  Did the US violate agreements and common sense to get involved? Yes. This is a result of 30 years of idiotic policies and greed with respect to the former Soviet Union.
  15. Why did it become so central to US Politics? Did I mention money? Follow the money. Also, hubris.
  16. Are the various career State and Military officials sincerely doing what they think is best for the United States? Sadly, they probably think they are.
  17. Are they doing what is best for the Country? Absolutely not. And there is nothing more dangerous than someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, and aren’t. They are sincere – sincerely delusional; and are blind to their own biases.
  18. What makes you so right and them so wrong? The main reason is I don’t have any overt conflicts of interest.  I also use multiple sources on all sides, and I don’t make assumptions unless I have to.  When I do, I try to constantly re-evaluate them. But the main reason is I don’t care about being wrong yesterday as long as I understand why, so I can do my best to be right today or tomorrow. Most analysts invest a lot of effort in proving they were right yesterday … and in the case of Russia/Ukraine, yesterday (Soviet times) was a different world from today.
  19. Where can I get unbiased information to understand this mess? Sadly, that’s hard. The few rational voices on this subject are marginalized and dismissed, and to understand the complex and overlapping issues of US, Russian, and Ukrainian domestic politics plus the multilateral treaty aspects you also you need to have access to Russian and Ukrainian sources. And then study international affairs ranging from bilateral agreements to international law. It’s nuanced – and nuance is an alien concept in modern American reporting. If you don’t agree with the “Putin owns tRump and is bad” narrative, or the “Our President is a saint, Biden, Ukraine, and Hillary’s Emails are Bad” extremes, it’s hard to be heard. Stephen F. Cohen, for example, is one of the few sane voices on the subject of Russia, and has been for 50 years, yet is dismissed as a “Putin Apologist” by both sides these days. There was a good background article in the otherwise establishment echo-chamber that is Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” by John Mearsheimer (who is sort of a an idiot about nuclear weapons, but got this right).
  20. Are we doomed? Yeah, probably.

There, hope that clears things up …

The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya

 

The Problem With Expats (and their Children) in Policy and Media

Note: This post was written before the firestorm over LTC Vindman’s testimony in Congress.  I don’t know Vindman, or how much of this discussion may or may not apply to him.  What I do know is that the Trump Administration and its supporters have a  peculiar talent for taking a perfectly valid and important issue like this (biased perspectives in foreign policy) and turning it into a poo flinging contest, just as his opponents have a talent for ignoring their own corrupt and biased practices.

Note after Vindman’s testimony: yeah, this is him …

In watching the media coverage of foreign policy issues, particularly of the Former Soviet Union, I am struck by the number of expatriots (refugees? immigrants? Is that term itself biased?) and their children who  are either in policy positions or are media “analysts”. This applies to many other countries, but it seems more prevalent in that area of the world.  I have to say it’s a two edged sword, and on the whole I think it is a problem and introduces some dangerous biases if not viewed with some skepticism, or balanced in some way, such as with current citizens of those countries or (better yet) vetted neutral analysts.

On the plus side, there is little better than someone who was born and raised in a culture.  Understanding the language, history, and so forth is invaluable, as are connections to the “old country”.  It’s hard to over estimate that value. But there is also a darker side and risk to solely relying on those who chose to leave their native land for perspective, and not appreciating and discussing the biases that might color their views.

Think about how traumatic it must have been for those who fled the Soviet Union in the late cold war, only to see communism collapse a few years later, and in some cases (like Ukraine) their native land “liberated” (ignoring, of course, that Russia was just as much occupied and victimized by Communism as the other Soviet Republics, and many communists from the Republics were among the most tyrannical of the bunch).  I think many may have intended to go home after communism fell – but were surprised it happened in their lifetime and once settled in here, with children who are native US citizens, that would be a hard thing to do. On some level to they must have regrets, and I think sometimes look for the worst in order to validate their decision to stay.  Some rise above it, have maintained contacts with friends and family, and have a good perspective.  But others have a biased view because their contacts are, naturally enough, largely with dissident communities who may be well meaning but are focused on “making things better” and therefore may be looking at what remains to be done rather than appreciating how much things have improved.  This applies to many special interest groups here at home, but that’s another story …

The children of these expats also can carry baggage.  While having perhaps learned the language and culture from their parents, which is certainly a positive thing, it must be kept in mind they also grew up hearing stories of how bad things were, and why their family had to leave.  Many enter the military or other service for their new American homeland, and have likely faced subtle pressure to prove their loyalty.  And some have, despite their heritage, lost touch with the land of their parents; I checked the biography of one analyst who frequently comments on Russia as a “security analyst” with the implication of native knowledge.  This person left a former Soviet Republic (not Russia) when three years old, has never actually been to Russia, and has apparently only briefly been back to the FSU for a few weeks to visit a grandparent.  Again, could be a great analyst, but in that case I’m rather skeptical because the views expressed are rather biased and simplistic in my view.

Government building in Moscow, with old Soviet crest still in place below Russian flag. Still a frequent sight in modern Russia.

Listen carefully to how often various analysts (both expats and former Cold War era vets) say “Soviet Union” when they mean “Russia”, or use old cold war metaphors and language.  I have to wonder if they haven’t caught up with the times, and the new opportunities (as well as threats) that time has brought. I’m not saying this is the case with every analyst, but as someone who spent his formative years being trained to fight the Soviets, it was a very hard transition to make to realize that Russia is not the Soviet Union.  Likewise, the landscape in the Middle East has changed remarkably since the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s hard to keep up, and I know many of my colleagues still think in terms of Cold War memes that no longer apply. The media has an obligation to make sure the views they present to the public are unbiased – or make sure those biases are apparent to the viewer.  Having independent, unbiased, skeptical analysts is vital to a democracy, especially when it applies to foreign policy matters of war and peace.  I suggest those views are increasingly absent in our infotainment driven world.

With respect to perspective, I’d also like to point out how rare it is to hear a spokesperson from foreign countries in the US media, especially those in which the US is in conflict.  All we seem to hear are US politicians, US Government PR people, or “analysts” who are often “former” US government employees (and let’s be honest here, senior military officers, especially retired flag officers, are almost never “former” in any real sense of the word).  I recall that during the late Soviet era various Soviet spokesman and analysts would appear on US TV.  Why don’t US cable “news” networks interview someone like Maria Zakharova, the articulate spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the omnipresent (on Russian TV) journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who practically lives in the studio (FYI, Moscow Times isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s in English :O here is a story in Russian that is more “pro Solovyov”)?  We may not agree with what they say, but we should certainly hear it.  To argue their statements are significantly more biased or manipulative than those of our own government is probably a bit naive.

In conclusion, we need to bring a wide variety of reasonable, unbiased perspectives in foreign policy debates.  We also need to understand other countries from *their* perspective, not just through the prism of our domestic politics and “national interests”. I would love to see more young people of all backgrounds study foreign languages and cultures, including longer trips and immersion to get to see other countries and, equally importantly, how they see us, to be able to provide perspectives that come without the baggage that comes from being part of an expat community. That’s not to say that those from that background should be minimized or discounted – they have and continue to produce some vital insights – but their baggage has to be considered and understood as part of a nuanced whole.

#Russia, #Ukraine, and #Impeachment: some missing context

Administrative note: I had some problems with drafts being posted straight to the site/FB/Twitter, causing some confusion, broken links and partial posts.  Hopefully that is fixed! Update on storms will be coming this afternoon.

Sorry this article-length post isn’t about the weather, but it is on a topic I know quite a bit about, and like hurricanes it is an area that the US media and political establishment exploit for drama and manipulation.  And, like hurricanes, it is a complex and nuanced thing.  As the US House of Representatives gets serious about Impeachment over the Trump, Biden, Ukraine and Russia connections, I hope everyone will take some time to understand how and why we got here and realize it’s not really about Russian or Ukrainian attempts to interfere in our politics, it is blow-back as a result of over two decades of the US  manipulating and exploiting financially those countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how US domestic politics got entangled with them.  I hope you will take a few minutes to read it through, and not jump to a conclusion based on which political team you cheer for.  As in so many things, both parties have utterly failed you, and are blaming the “other” for the ensuing mess.  Although this post is long, it’s still overly simplified, but at least it’s a start.

It’s hard to know where to begin this story, but to avoid writing a book we’ll start it with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, and why the shadows of that event are now cast in the heart of US Politics.  The Soviet economy was in shambles, and numerous deals were made to facilitate a peaceful transition between the Former Soviet Union (FSR) and the independent nation-states that resulted from the breakup.  There are two key elements of that breakup that are of interest to us here: the disposition of the nuclear arsenal, and  reforms of the “communist” economies (they weren’t really communist, and barely deserve the term “socialist,” but that’s the label that stuck).  First let’s look at the post-Soviet borders and military situation …

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#Saudi Arabia Refinery #Attacks

The weather isn’t by any means the most dangerous threat facing us.  My guess is most folks think of Enki as a hurricane or weather research group.  In fact, Hurricanes and Weather/Climate research is about 60% of Enki’s work right now.  Geophysical hazards (Earthquakes, Tsunamis) are another 20% or so, and about 10% “anthropogenic” hazards like LNG or nuclear power incidents.  But about 10% of Enki’s work is in the area of Foreign Policy and related issues (space, remote sensing, and open source intelligence) and impacts of WMD (nuclear mostly).  While the WMD/Foreign Policy related work is the smallest percentile it has been in a long time, in many ways that field was the most important, as many of the techniques used in the other areas originated in that dark realm.  I don’t often post about it for the obvious reasons, but also because unfortunately in modern day America it’s becoming increasingly hard to have a nuanced discussion about anything that touches on Politics. This blog actually started in the early 2000’s as “SatBlog”, and most of the posts were about  monitoring disasters, including war zones, using satellite remote sensing.  In may interest some of you that SatBlog broke several news stories during the Iraq invasion, including that the Iraqis had set the oil fields on fire.

This morning the Houthis rebels (with almost certain help from Iran) are alleged to have attacked multiple targets in Saudi Arabia, damaging several refineries and taking offline over half of Saudi oil production (there is reason to be skeptical of this narrative, but that is what the official sources say).  The fires and smoke plumes are visible from space, as this MODIS quick look image shows …

If these facilities are heavily damaged or stay offline for long, it will have a ripple effect throughout the fragile world economy.  And, of course, the inevitable retaliation will have consequences, and a spiral of violence is possible.  Scary stuff.