Why Captain Kirk Would Intervene in Syria

Moved the story over to Huffington Post. You can check it out here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-peck/star-trek-foreign-policy_b_3187543.html

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South Korea: Paper Tiger

Mao Tse-Tung used to accuse America of being a paper tiger, all bark and no bite. That’s also why the looney tunes in North Korea aren’t shaking at South Korea’s vow of retaliation over Pyongyang’s artillery barrage on a South Korean island.

Because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. South Korea has a prosperous, industrialized economy. North Korea has 13,000 well-camouflaged and fortified artillery pieces along the Demilitarized Zone, enough to level Seoul – about 35 miles from the border – in a few hours. Let’s not even get into the atomic weapons that would devastate the South and seriously crimp the world’s supply of anime.

South Korea’s president has threatened missile strikes if the North lobs more shells. He must be kidding. What exactly is he going to do a nation whose leaders don’t care that their people eat grass to stay alive? What is there to bomb? And do you want to bomb a nuclear power? Americans and Russians mostly avoided shooting at each other during the Cold War, and for a very good reason.

Food aid is another matter. But judging by the recent artillery barrage and sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, offering food to the North isn’t much of a carrot. Because the leadership doesn’t care as long as it has The Bomb, plenty of food for the elite, and the world treats North Korea as a major power instead of psychotic juvenile delinquent in the global classroom.

I wonder if South Korea has the military capability and technology to conquer (or liberate) the North. With its Soviet sugar daddy gone, it’s not so easy being a Communist dictatorship. But who’s going to chance that a nuke will land on Seoul or Tokyo? Despise North Korea’s leaders for their callousness and viciousness, but for a small, poor nation, they are very successful at getting the world’s attention.

I don’t know what South Korea will do. Actually, I don’t know what they can do. It’s like having your brother live next door, and threatening to burn down your house if you don’t mow his lawn…and rake his leaves…and bring him dinner every night. You can pray that he will come to his senses, but if he doesn’t, then you know that sooner or later, he will burn down your house.


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The wit and wisdom of America's fighting general

General James Mattis eats nails, sleeps on nails, and can break a jihadi in half with one fingernail. At least that’s the impression you get from reading about the new boss of Central Command, which oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Marine Corp general’s tough-talking style has attracted a lot of admirers among defense reporters, who have compiled a list of “mattisisms”. Some of the more notable ones:

* “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

* “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”

*  “When Gen. Abrial arrived to relieve me as the supreme commander, only don’t ask, don’t tell kept me from hugging and kissing him.”

Here’s an Atlantic compilation of 16 favorite Mattis quotes. And here’s a Twitter page devoted to mattisisms. Some are from Mattis, and some are quips about Mattis (“General Mattis doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.”):

Tell me Gen. Mattis doesn’t chomp cigars. It just wouldn’t be right if he didn’t.

But James Mattis is no “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” cowboy. That’s not the sort of man who rises to become a four-star general in the Marine Corps, which tends to think more out of the box than the other services. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman describes Mattis as a man who helped author the military’s counterinsurgency manual, and one who believes that people are more important than technology in war (“What are we creating today with our command-and-control systems? I don’t think we have turned off our radios in the last eight years.”) There’s a brain behind the cigar.

Obama might say about Gen. Mattis what Lincoln said about Gen. Grant: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Then again, a fighting general in a grinding, unpopular counterinsurgency campaign might not be the ticket, especially as casualties soar as America pours in more troops. Yet if you’re going to fight a war, better a tough commander determined to impose his will on the enemy.  Or as Mattis says: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

Posted in Afghanistan, Defense, Foreign Affairs, Politics, War and Peace, World | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better a strong president than a great general

Changing commanders in the middle of a war is never easy. Lincoln fired lethargic General McClellan and appointed Grant to command the Army of the Potomac. The troops were not happy with the change. Truman fired General MacArthur, and conservatives hammered him for it.

Now Obama has fired McChrystal, and he will almost certainly pay a price. Obama’s critics will claim that his field commander knew better than he did, and that McChrystal was fired because Obama couldn’t handle the truth. Obama shouldn’t worry. Lincoln and Truman survived, and fared better in the history books than the would-be warlords they dismissed. In the end, Americans would rather have a strong president than a good general.

The fact is that good or bad, generals are replaceable. That is how the military is designed. If a commander falls, another takes his place, with the same training and knowledge as his predecessor, and likely to use many of the same strategies and tactics.

But there is only one President. He, too, is replaceable, or at least every four years. Yet during those four years, our nation invests him with enormous power, prestige and responsibility. A weak President – or a President perceived as weak – has domestic and foreign consequences that extend far beyond a war in a remote Asian nation. We can’t say for sure that Petraeus will be a better or worse commander than McChrystal (though he will certainly be more discreet). But we can that a Commander-in-Chief who meekly accepts ridicule from his generals does not deserve the title and will not command the respect that his office demands. In a world of Al Qaeda and the Iranian bomb, we can’t afford a Cuckold-in-Chief.

Generals frequently tend to be more popular than presidents. They appear stronger, more purposeful, more competent. But they have the luxury of only focusing on war, on killing the enemy or capturing ground. Presidents, whether they want to or not, must deal with the big picture.

It’s important to have good generals. We have had some poor ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we still paying the price a decade later. But whether the general’s name is McChrystal or Petraeus will make little difference. The Afghan war rests on a strategy that we have chosen for better or worse, and the ultimate bearer of responsibility for that strategy is one Barack Obama.

Posted in Defense, War and Peace, World | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Build your own railroad empire

Railroads are coming back. The Iron Horse may seem so 19th Century, yet between tighter energy supplies and a crumbling and congested highway system, rail is looking better. Obama may or may not have the political – or financial – capital to push through his plan for high-speed rail. But to see how decaying railroad infrastructure can clog a growing economy, see this NYT piece on Indian railways.

So what a great time to play some railroad games! Fans of Sid Meier’s legendary Railroad Tycoon series of computer games will be glad to know that the master’s deftly digital hand is back at the throttle with “Railroads” (scheduled for October release). In the meantime, for my choo-choo fix, I turned to a board game (remember cardboardware?).

“Railways of the World” is a series of 19th Century rail-builder games from Eagle Games. I tried the base game, which sets up to six players building railroads across the Eastern United States. The first thing that strikes you about this game is its components. The box must weigh 10 pounds, jammed full of trains, water towers, cards, cardboard markers and a large map of the U.S.  There’s enough plastic in this game to send the price of oil soaring.

Each turn in Railways of the World is divided into three rounds, during which players can lay track, ship goods, or draw or play cards. Players earn victory points and money by shipping goods. There are five types of goods – denoted by different colored cubes – that are randomly placed on cities across the map. Some cities on the map also have colors, and game play boils down to shipping, say,  a blue cube to a blue city. The longer the route, or rather the greater the number of cities that the route passes through, the more you earn for each delivery. Problem is, there are only a limited number of rail routes into each city, and if another player is the first to lay track on the shortest route from Baltimore to Philadelphia, you’re either shut out of that market or you build track on a longer route.

And there’s the rub. Laying track costs money. Money is raised by shipping goods. But to deliver goods, you need to first lay track, which also requires money. So you have to take out loans, which means interest payments to bondholders. It’s tempting to go on a track-laying frenzy to sew markets, but it’s a mistake that no one (notably me) will ever make after his first game. The resulting interest payments (curiously, loans never can be paid off) drain your revenues and stifle your growth. Winning in Railways of the World is a delicate balance between expansion and parsimony. As realtors says, location is everything. The Northeast abounds with cities that allow short rail connections that are cheap to build. But there are beaucoup bonus points for building links to the West (which on this map, begins somewhere around Minneapolis).

Cards add a nice random touch to the game. They offer bonus points for being the first to complete certain goals, such as shipping four different colors of goods. Or they allow players to change the color of a city, creating instant markets.

Did I learn a lot about real-life railroads? Not really. But I learned about cutthroat capitalism, and the fine line between ambition and megalomania. Railways of the World is addictive. My board game group has been playing it for months. The randomness of the cards and the random setup of goods make every game different.  I hope railroads will come back. But I’m glad that rail games are.

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Gulf gusher: Marine Corps expert says bomb it

Forget nuking the BP oil well. There is a better, safer way to seal the gusher, according to a U.S. Marine Corps expert.  One that won’t turn the Gulf of Mexico into a radioactive swimming pool or risk starting World War III.

Franz Gayl, a civilian science and technology advisor to the Marine Corps, wants to drop one of the Pentagon’s giant bunker-buster bombs, the kind that would be used to destroy Iranian or North Korean nuclear site buried deep inside mountains. The GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb is 30 feet long and weighs 10 tons. There are also leftover Vietnam-era BLU-82B “Daisy Cutter” bombs containing nearly eight tons of high explosive.

In an email to Uncommon Defense, Gayl explained that the bombs can be used like a depth charge used against submarines. Instead of being dropped by C-130 transports, the giant bombs would be encased in a simple pressure shell and lowered to a few feet above the leaking well head.

If you explode such devices above ground the released energy would be observed as a huge blast that moves outward through the low pressure and “squishy” (i.e. highly compressible) air. However, at a depth of 5,000 feet the blast bubble will be quite small in volume, even at detonation, and as the gases rapidly cool they will of course shoot towards the surface 5,000 feet above.

So, the obvious question is what becomes of the tremendous amount of released energy in the detonation, if there is no huge blast, as one would get above ground? The answer is an absolutely incredible shock wave that will in a fraction of a milisecond crush every volume that it encounters that is less than the pressure of the water shock front through which it is propagating.

That devastating shock wave will treat any metal cavity like soft Play Doe, sealing every perceived cavity with a crushing force thousands of times greater than even the ambient water pressure. The oil plumbing is filled with rapidly flowing oil that has at any moment a lower density than the surrounding and effectively incompressible water through which the shock wave moves. Not only is crude oil less dense, but it also is compressible, unlike the water surrounding it. At 5,000 feet depth the shock wave will therefore have the effect of a concentric fist crushing every inch of plumbing and instantaneously sealing the full length of exposed pipe, but seal it permanently.

Gayl calls the big bombs an environmentally “green” way of sealing the well.  I’m not enough of a physicist or explosives expert to judge whether the idea is genius or insane. One obvious concern is that the blast might rupture the pipes around the well and worsen the leak. But Gayl argues that detonating the bomb a few yards from the well head will be far enough to avoid destroying the plumbing. I’m also hesitant to call dropping giant bombs a “green” solution, although it’s much greener – and much saner – than underwater nukes.

Gayl previously caught public attention for blowing the whistle on delays in mine-resistant Marine Corps armored vehicles. Then-senator Joe Biden demanded that the Marine Corps cease retaliating against him.

Gayl notes that one party that won’t be keen on the “green bomb” idea is BP. “BP wouldn’t like that option because they wouldn’t be able to reopen that particular well. Fortunately I think the President and the public are at the point of saying this is a national emergency (actually international) and the the business case for preserving the well is trumped by the emergency.”

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Gaza music video: "We conned the world"

[youtubevid id=”2KUcv452KbU”]An Israeli music video about the knife-wielding “peace activists” on the Gaza convoy. Okay, some of the singers aren’t great, and the guy with the Love Boat hat is painful to watch. But the line about the pro-Hamas propaganda campaign – “we’ll make Hamas look like Mother Theresa” – rings true.

Meanwhile, Israeli students are planning to send a convoy to aid  victims of Turkish genocide and persecution. The convoy will bring humanitarian aid to the Armenians – 1.5 million exterminated by the Turks in a forerunner of the Nazi Holocaust – as well as  the Kurds. “It’ll be a peace flotilla without the knives and stones that hurt IDF soldiers, without violence, which is intended for all those oppressed by the Turkish government,” said one of the organizers.

I can’t wait to see all the humanitarian groups, activists and politicians rushing to join a humanitarian mission to the Kurds, who have suffered for years at the hands of the Turkish military in their fight for an independent Kurdish state. I’m sure the same people who insisted on sailing to Gaza will insist on sailing to Cyprus, where Turkish troops occupied a third of the island, expelled hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots, and set up a puppet regime recognized by no one else in the world.

Because, after all, the international peace movement cares as much about Kurdistan, Darfur and North Korea as it does about Gaza, right?  I’ll look forward to the international Free Kurdistan movement.

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