USS Clueless

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040827.2353

(Captain's log): In response to a rather peevish announcement I added to the top of this page a couple of weeks ago, to try to get people to cease sending me breathless letters about a grand breakthrough in fuel cell technology which was (not) going to revolutionize the world and was (not) going to end the war, David send me the following letter:

You said:

"I find I must be very blunt: I do not want to descend..."

But... but... Steven,

Don't you understand that it's your OBLIGATION to:

1. Entertain us

2. Put up with our endlessly repetitive and thoughtless ignorance

3. Educate us -- WITHOUT disturbing our misconceptions in any way, and

4. Endure the brickbats of our baying mobs whenever you disappoint us for any reason?

I just thought I'd clear up your obvious ignorance of this matter.

Don't thank me. I'm always glad to help.

Here's the reply I sent him.

One of the things I noticed during the last two weeks was that I had something of a feeling of relief. It's sort of like the feeling you have when you suddenly notice that your hiccups are gone, or that the throbbing headache you'd been feeling was suddenly over.

I don't actually get very much hate mail. Most of my mail is at least polite, though in some cases it approaches the indignant.

But nearly every article I write draws anywhere from 5 to 50 letters containing corrections, disagreements, comments about things I "left out" because "I didn't know", or other forms of kibitzing.

In the last two weeks, that has trailed down to nearly zero. (Not all the way, however. Yesterday I received a letter from someone who wrote 3000 words trying to refute something I posted two and a half years ago. At the end of his letter, he asked whether in light of his comments, I might now want to retract and rewrite my post. I answered thusly: "Nope.")

I'm finding that it's quite a relief not to receive a constant flow of email griping about everything I post. No matter what I write, and no matter what I say, there are always people who either think I was wrong, or think that there were things I left out and should have included. I've been putting up with that for two years, and I guess I'd gotten used to living with a low-level throbbing headache all that time.

But for the last two weeks it's been gone. And I'm not so sure I want to go back to doing the activity which caused that headache.

In one of the cases where Kevin Drum rained ridicule down on my head, last April, most of the comment thread was predictably nasty (towards me), with different commenters competing to find the most clever rhetorical dismissal.

There was one comment in that thread, from someone named "Terry Ott", which was different -- and perceptive:

Jed says..."we are living in a world of skimmers". SDB's site is not for skimmers, and it is not for commenters either. DenBeste's archives contains what I found to be a very interesting article about how and why he writes, and his rationale for running his site the way he does. It's a hobby, basically, like some people do crossword puzzles.

He writes about what interests HIM, he writes in great detail, he painstakingly explains things, he is analytical and rational (like an engineer), he is inquisitive. He is not humorous or flippant.

What DenBeste does, in my opinion, is not much different than what a painter does. He decides what he wants to paint, he lets the concept of it percolate for a while until the image starts to form, and then he sits and canvass and pours it out. In SDB's case, he paints large, serious works with lots of details, in his own style. Then he hangs it where others can see it. He is not particularly interested in criticism; like any human, he probably gets satisfaction when someone praises the piece --- but he also knows it's not for everyone.

I go to art galleries and shows sometimes. Maybe 5-10% of the works displayed catch my interest. But when something does that, I soak it in and try to understand what impact it has on me and why I am reacting to it. So it is, for me, with DenBeste's essays. I "skim" the gallery, but I devour the few individual pieces that strike a chord.

It's the difference between a tradesman doing good, honest work to fill a demand that's out there, and an craftsman/artist who is into self expression for the satisfaction it gives him. And artists can be temperamental you know.

The blogosphere is big enough for all kinds.

I don't necessarily agree with that 100% (occasionally I do write things just to be humorous) but in its essence he's right. And that's why I don't really appreciate letters from people who think they're fans and who think they're helping me by pointing out ways they think my posts could be changed so as to improve them. I don't want to improve; I wrote it the way I wanted to write it, and the result is my expression. If I wrote it the way they think I should have written it, it would no longer be my expression.

For three and a half years I've been writing, and posting my stuff here. But for the last year, my production rate has been ramping off, and one of the reasons is that I am tired of the constant carping.

I know that you're trying to be funny and to commiserate with me, and I appreciate that. My response is serious because it's a serious problem. I've actually been thinking hard about whether I want to start posting again. I suspect that I will, but the idea of just giving up on it all is not unattractive.

Since then, I've realized that I don't want to write any longer. I've been thinking about it, and I realized that I stopped enjoying it about a year ago, which is also about the time that I began to post less and less often. Several times in the last year I've tried to tell my readers what I was feeling, in hopes that it might change things, but it didn't help. I even made graphic one time and put it at the end of a post I knew was going to draw a particularly robust response:

For the last few months, each time I published a post, I mentally cringed a bit, thinking about all the kinds of letters I knew I'd get, things I could predict. You've sometimes seen me try to preempt those with DWL's.

Several times in the last three weeks I thought of something which would make a good post, and then I stopped, and said to myself, "Better not."

I've learned something interesting: if you give away ice cream, eventually a lot of people will complain about the flavors, and others will complain that you aren't also giving away syrup and whipped cream and nuts. I put together this page which contains two days worth of my email, just so you could get some idea of what it looks like. It isn't all bad; it isn't all unwelcome. Very little of it is abusive. But the majority of it is burdensome.

To slice the email a different way, here's a collection of email regarding my last article about terrorism. Again, it wasn't all unwelcome, but much of it was more burden than pleasure.

Far too much of it was from people who knew better than me what I should have written, and wanted to tell me how to rewrite it. Those are the people who have made me cease getting pleasure out of my writing.

I put off making this post because I knew what kind of email it would draw. (For example: yes, I know that the people who write to me with those kinds of comments are a small and vocal minority. But they're numerous in absolute terms, and they won't leave me alone.)

However, I've been receiving email from people worried about whether something was wrong. So I felt I owed it to my long-time readers to explain. (Thus the irony which I'll point out before Ydrumsias does: umpteen thousand words explaining why I don't want to post any more.)

Yes, there's something wrong. I'm tired. Does this mean I'll never post again? Damned if I know. But it won't be soon.

Update 20040829: How to say this?

Now that 75 people have all mailed to suggest that I not read the email, or that I take my email address offline, or that I impose some kind of email filtration, or etc, I would greatly appreciate it if no one else suggests that.

Update: In fact, I'd really appreciate it if people stopped sending suggestions of any kind.

Update 20040830: Thanks, dude. You're all heart.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040731.1408

(Captain's log): There may be few words today which are more politically important, more widely used, and less understood than the word terrorism. Even trying to come up with a dictionary-style definition for the term is not easy. Having every radical out there suddenly decide that their mortal enemies are "terrorists", in some way or other, doesn't help any. Nor is the situation clarified by supporters of terrorist groups who deny that they are terrorists.

The basic doctrine of terrorism as a form of warfare developed in the 20th century. In the era of industrial warfare, God fights on the side with the biggest guns, and terrorism was one of two major doctrines of "asymmetrical warfare" which were developed which would permit small, badly-financed forces to engage in war against opponents who were overwhelmingly larger and more powerful.

The other was guerrilla warfare. They share similar problems and some aspects of them are similar, but they are definitely distinct. The most important goal of both is to maintain initiative so as to control tempo.

Both were developed primarily as forms of domestic warfare, either by a resistance movement against foreign occupiers in a conquered nation, or by a revolutionary movement against the existing government. (Terrorism as a form of offensive war is new. I've been thinking about it a lot lately.)

In all warfare, there are five critical elements: objectives, strategy, tactics, logistics, and morale. In the era of industrial war, logistics became the most critical of those five, which is why interdiction and attrition are the most important features of industrial war, and why God seemed to fight on the side with the biggest guns.

The doctrines of terrorism and guerrilla warfare both aim to neutralize the logistical superiority of their stronger foe. They maintain initiative in order to control the tempo of war at a level which is logistically sustainable for the weaker opponent, thus avoiding defeat through attrition.

In terms of classic doctrine, the critical difference between terrorist warfare and guerrilla warfare is that attacks made by guerrillas are primarily intended to directly harm the enemy, whereas attacks made by terrorists are primarily intended to provoke reprisals.

For the remainder of this article, I will use the words guerrilla and terrorist to refer to combatants fighting their wars in accordance with those two classic doctrines.

In order to discuss these doctrines, it's necessary to speak of seven critical groups: our forces, our people, our allies, their forces, their people, their allies, and everyone else.

Our forces and their forces include both leadership and military formations.

For resistance movements, our people is the population of the conquered nation, and their people is the citizenry of the conquering nation. For revolutionary movements it's more complicated and fluid. Basically, our people are the portions of the nation which are at least mildly sympathetic to our revolutionary cause, and their people are those who generally support the government. (But these things are always driven by specific circumstances; the devil is always in the details.)

Terrorists make their attacks and then fade away into the population. They tailor their attacks to inspire the maximum horror and anger from the enemy's people, bringing irresistible pressure to bear on the enemy's leadership to do something, while depriving the enemy leadership of any obvious target to do something against. If the enemy leadership does nothing or does something token and useless, it will look weak to our people and make us look like winners, increasing support. It can decrease support from its own people.

But if the enemy leadership does respond strongly, we hope it will target our people (as distinct from our forces, which the enemy can't actually locate). That will anger our people, again increasing support for us. In many cases it will also help discredit the enemy leadership, making them look brutal rather than weak. (That depends enormously on who the enemy people are and how they view themselves.)

We also hope that our allies will become more committed, and their allies will become less so. We hope that the world's uncommitted may come to support us.

Which is why propaganda is an essential part of both doctrines. It is not enough to organize, to plan, and to carry out acts of war. It is vital to try to control perception of events. Both sides are fighting a dirty war, but it is vital that they be portrayed as dirtier than we are.

Guerrilla war and terrorist war, when fought according to classic doctrine, are long slow wars. These are marathons, not sprints.

But terrorists and guerrillas can be defeated, in the sense that they can be weakened and marginalized enough so that they have no hope of victory. Usually defeated guerillas and terrorists fade away slowly, caught in a downward spiral of decreasing support, decreasing resources, and decreasing ability to operate offensively.

Those doctrines were developed incrementally, by groups who studied and built upon previous groups. Much of it was developed by sundry Communist and/or Marxist movements around the world.

Baathist forces in Iraq continued to fight after Baghdad fell last year. Iraq's conventional military forces were decisively crushed by a combined Australo-Anglo-American conventional military force. Most news coverage and most common discussion tended to refer to their campaign as being "terrorist", but in fact it was a sort of hybrid, primarily relying on the doctrine for guerrilla war but adopting some elements of terrorist doctrine.

The strategic foundation was the assumption that America had no staying power. This was based on observation and analysis of such events as the American response to the takeover of the embassy in Tehran, American operations in Beirut and Somalia, and responses to various attacks made by al Qaeda. The strategy was to try to turn Iraq into a "quagmire" in hopes that the American people would lose heart and rapidly give up in a matter of weeks or at most months.

Of course it didn't work, in the sense of actually achieving the political goal of causing us to "cut and run".

There was also a bit of a hope that they could provoke reprisals, or at the very least induce American soldiers to fear and distrust Iraqis collectively, and thus to poison all interactions between the occupation force and the people of Iraq. The main purpose of that wasn't so much to rally support for the resistance as to seriously impede "nation building" by the coalition. It was hoped that gradually American and British troops would cease being thought of by Iraqis as liberators and more as conquerors.

That, too, ultimately failed; that, too, did not achieve the political goal. Its ultimately failure took place on June 28, when sovereignty was transferred to a transitional Iraqi government.

Thus the insurgency now has been unwillingly transformed, forced to change from resistance movement to revolutionary movement. It now fights against an Iraqi government.

Let it be clear that there really isn't one single unified "insurgency". There are many, and their goals are not necessarily totally congruent. What I'm mainly discussing here is the Sunni insurgency, which right now is generally identified with Falluja.

They're trying to portray themselves as a resistance movement by trying to portray the government as a puppet of the conquerors, but I don't think that's working very well.

In terms of my seven critical groups, "their people" are more or less the Sunnis. That's where they hope they can build strength and support.

But what I noticed today is that they have also largely abandoned classical doctrine. That's because classical doctrine will no longer serve. Time is against them.

They've adopted an entirely different doctrine now, one which could also be thought of as terrorism, but one which has nothing to do with the terrorist doctrine I described above (and also described here and here). They have ceased relying on the teachings of Mao and Guevara.

The fundamental personality of their campaign has changed, and it is coming more and more to resemble the revolutionary fascism of Mussolini.

There are two primary strategic targets now, one of which serves the other.

They have given up on inducing Bush to cut and run. If Bush loses this election, it might end up being a good thing for them, but any benefit from that will be delayed by months, and they can't afford to wait. Instead, they have begin to target weak links in the coalition. The insurgency inside Iraq was a beneficiary of the Madrid attack, but almost certainly was not involved in it directly. However, that showed them the way, and they had their first solid success with the Philippines.

They are not exclusively focusing on foreign governments. They're also going after individual companies. The preferred tactic seems to be kidnapping and threats of brutal decapitation against nationals of a target government or employees of a target corporation. They demand to be paid, and they demand that the target withdraw from Iraq.

Obviously any ransoms they might collect directly aid them. But the demand for withdrawal is the more important one.

Like classic terrorist warfare and classic guerrilla warfare, this kind of warfare is cheap and easy. Potential victims are plentiful and can be captured easily with little risk. Each success is huge; each foreign target which capitulates is a huge victory. When a foreign target stands strong, the terrorists can brutally murder their captive and put video of his death online, making it that much more difficult for the next target to stand strong.

The only real significant way this could lead to "failure" would be if the gangs engaged in these kidnappings were found and taken out within days of a kidnapping, or if they encountered unexpected resistance in a kidnapping attempt. So far, neither risk has been significant. (The risk of the latter is very much a function of victim selection. Some victims are more likely to fight back.)

As foreign targets capitulate and withdraw, the insurgency has also begun to issue threats against foreign forces which are considering getting involved.

A militant group has posted Internet warning that threatens attacks against any Islamic or Arab nation that contributes troops to a Saudi-proposed Muslim force for Iraq.

"Our swords will be drawn in the face of anyone who cooperates with the Jews and the Christians," the group said in its statement. "We will strike with an iron fist all the traitors from the Arab governments who cooperate with the Zionists secretly or openly."

All of this serves the long term goal of trying to cause political damage to Bush in the election campaign, but that's not the primary purpose of it.

The primary strategic target now for the insurgency is Iraqi support for the new government. In fact, the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq has always been the primary battlefield.

Last September I wrote an article called "Decompressing Iraq", where I talked about the fundamental problem we faced there.

In the Antarctic, penguins nest on land but hunt at sea. There are leopard seals and killer whales who think that penguins are delicious, and who know where the rookeries are located. They hang out in the ocean nearby and wait, looking for a meal. If a group of penguins want to go to sea to hunt, the first few to enter the water take the greatest risk, and no one wants to be the first. So they collect on the edge of the ice, and jostle themselves, and eventually one or two lose their balance and fall in, and then the rest of them dive in after them.

Iraqis are not penguins, obviously, but there's something like that going on. After 25 years where expressing any kind of independence could earn you a horrible death, or earn such a death for everyone you love, it's hard to believe that it's changed. They were told that it was changed, but was it really true? And was it permanent?

There was a natural tendency for most to not take that chance. But a few took small chances, and didn't suffer for it. That encouraged others to try a bit more as time went on. ...

In 1991 after the Gulf war, when Saddam had been weakened, the Bush administration gave speeches supporting revolution against Saddam, and many Iraqis responded by rising in revolt. Then they discovered that we weren't willing to back that up with actions, and without our help they didn't have a chance. It's not unreasonable for them to wonder if we're really determined this time to see the whole thing through. Even now, with Saddam deposed and in hiding somewhere, will the mercurial Americans suddenly lose interest and pull out, leaving a power vacuum which Saddam will once again fill by reestablishing Baathist rule? Were I an Iraqi, I could not dismiss that possibility.

And those who speak freely today, might discover that their names had been added to a list of "those to be liquidated" after the Americans cut and run and Saddam returns to power.

I don't think anyone there believes anymore that Saddam himself will return to power, but if they think there's a significant change that the current government could fall and the Baathists could once again return to power, then they would certainly have to worry that any significant public support for the current government would mark them for a dreadful fate come the day.

Over the last year, as I predicted in that article, support for the process and Iraqi commitment to it has been growing stronger and stronger. The Baathists must reverse that if they are to have any chance of victory.

Their campaign against foreign powers is part of that effort. They hope to induce a rout, and there definitely is a chance of that happening. That would seriously damage the credibility of the interim government, and cause increasing doubt as to whether the whole thing might end up collapsing.

The insurgents are also targeting government officials. The ongoing campaign of increasingly-random bombings is intended to make Iraqis lose confidence in the ability of the government to keep them safe. And the police are also a target.

Could it work? Yes, I'm afraid it could. But it could also backfire badly.

Ultimately this is psychological warfare, and expectations are key. Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure.

It can work; it is working to the extent that individual Iraqis believe it has an increasing chance of working. When individual Iraqis doubt, and thus reduce their support for the government, then the insurgency grows stronger.

But if enough individual Iraqis think that the insurgency is unlikely to win, then they are more likely to be willing to take the chance of helping the government. That means being willing to give tips to the government helping them to find the insurgents.

I think it's obvious that the nation-building process in Iraq was not seriously harmed by Spanish and Philippine capitulation to withdrawal demands. But if the US cuts and runs, then the new government of Iraq is doomed and everyone knows it. So I think there's no doubt that the people of Iraq are watching the American presidential campaign very closely.

If they knew and believed that the US commitment to the new Iraqi government would remain strong no matter who won the election, that would be immensely helpful. Sadly, they have no basis right now for any such conclusion. On this issue, as on so many others, Kerry seems hellbent on avoiding any perception of having taken a stand. Even the Boston Globe, the NYTimes, and the Wapo have noticed.

He's said he won't pull out. But he's also said that going in was a mistake. And he's talked about ways of pulling out. He's on all sides of this issue, just as he seems to be on all sides of nearly every other substantive issue.

However, based on more blunt statements made by other prominent Democrats, as well as the way the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign have embraced Michael Moore instead of publicly castigating him, surely Iraqis cannot avoid the strong suspicion that Kerry does not intend to continue to support the government there. There would have to be a strong suspicion that Kerry has been vague about this because he knows that if he were honest he'd lose the election. And given press coverage claiming that the campaign is a dead heat (or that Kerry is actually in the lead), they can't categorically reject the possibility that he would win.

Increasingly strong enthusiasm about Kerry in Europe cannot be comforting, either. The same people in Europe who are perceived in Iraq of having done everything they could to derail the ongoing process are hoping Kerry will win.

An article in the Wapo has the headline, "Voters want more specifics from Kerry". It's important for us to have some idea what he truly stands for (if anything) so that we can make a good decision when we vote. If Kerry continues to waffle, I think it will strongly contribute to his electoral defeat.

But on this one issue, his refusal to break character by speaking frankly, speaking to the point, has significant foreign policy ramifications. It increases doubt for Iraqis about American commitment, and therefore makes an insurgent victory seem more plausible.

And that is a victory for the insurgents. It actually does make an insurgent victory more likely.

Update 20040801: As to misuse of the word "terrorist", here's an example. (The real terrorists are the Republicans. Or so it is claimed.)

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040728.1502

(On Screen): Yesterday, Randy sent me this email:

I'm rather new to the BlogWorld, but after reading a bit of USS Clueless I thought you might answer an engineering question for me. I heard on the radio today that the nuclear power plant in Iraq that the Israelis blew up some years ago (sorry, I don't recall the name of the plant), was not capable of producing material that could be used in an atomic/nuclear bomb.

What do you think, is that true? Assuming it's true, what do you suppose would have been the Israeli rationale for destroying the power plant?

Today I learned that it was my old friend Regis Le Sommier who made that claim on the radio. I might have known...

I answered Randy by email, but I thought I'd post an answer, too, now that I know the source of that claim.

In one sense Le Sommier is correct: the French-built nuclear plant in Iraq is not capable of producing material which could be used in nuclear weapons.

That's because the Israelis destroyed it with their air strike before it went into operation.

I don't think that was what he meant. I think he was trying to contend that even if the plant had been finished and had gone into operation, it would not have aided Saddam's quest to develop nuclear weapons. That would exonerate France of any charge that it was helping Iraq develop nuclear weapons, and it would permit Le Sommier to argue that Israel's air strike wasn't justified.

If Le Sommier claimed that the French-built reactor in Iraq could not have produced anything that could be used in atomic bombs, either he was lying or he is dreadfully misinformed.

Theoretically speaking, there are a lot of ways of building power plants based on nuclear fission, and a lot of potential fuels which can be used. But right now, all civilian power plants use the same fuel, low-enriched uranium (LEU).

Naturally occurring uranium contains 0.72% of isotope 235 and negligible amounts of isotope 234. All the rest is isotope 238. U235 is fissionable, but U238 is not. Low-enriched uranium is uranium which has been processed to remove U238 so that the concentration of U235 is greater than 0.7% but less than 20%. Usually in fuel rods for power reactors it's between 3% and 5%.

You can't make a working atomic bomb out of low-enriched uranium. The threshold of 20% was adopted in the definition of LEU precisely because uranium consisting of 20% or less of U235 cannot form a critical mass. (A large mass of LEU would get extremely hot very rapidly, and would melt. If it was exposed to oxygen, it would also burn. The resulting mess would make Chernobyl look minor by comparison. However, it is physically impossible for it to detonate in a nuclear explosion.)

In a power reactor, energy is released because atoms of U235 undergo fission. Their nuclei break into pieces, and it's impossible to predict what the pieces will be, or how many there will be. Usually there are two big pieces, and nearly always one or more neutrons will also be released.

Some of those neutrons escape from the reactor core entirely and have to be absorbed by shielding. Some of those neutrons strike other U235 nuclei, and can cause them in their turn to fission almost immediately. But a lot of those neutrons strike other atoms in the reactor core. Some of them strike U238 nuclei and many of those are absorbed. If the fuel rods are based on LEU, it is impossible to prevent this from happening.

If U238 absorbs a neutron, it becomes U239. U239 β- decays with a half-life of 23.5 minutes, yielding Np239. That, in turn, also β- decays with a half-life of 2.35 days, yielding Pu239.

The fuel rods have to be replaced once a significant amount of the U235 in them has been used up. That usually takes many months, and sometimes takes years. By that point, a non-negligible amount of U238 will have been converted to Plutonium.

It won't all be Pu239. Plutonium is much better at capturing neutrons than U238, and it turns out that Pu240, Pu241, and beyond will make up a considerable percentage.

But that doesn't matter. What does matter is this: plutonium is chemically different from any of the other components of the fuel rod, and if the spent fuel rods are dissolved with acid, plutonium salts can easily be separated out using chemical means. Purified plutonium salts can then easily be reduced to plutonium metal. (Understand that "easy" is a relative term. It's dreadfully difficult and hazardous to do any of this, but it's extremely easy by comparison to what you have to go through to produce highly-enriched "weapons grade" uranium.)

The reason that matters is that if you have enough plutonium metal, on the order of a few kilograms, it is possible to build an atomic bomb. It isn't necessary to isotopically purify the plutonium.

The Manhattan Project ran two parallel development efforts. One developed a bomb based on highly-enriched U235, and the other developed a bomb based on plutonium. For technical reasons not worth going into, the plutonium design was much more complicated and risky, and the powers that be decided they needed to test it before using it in war. So the first atomic explosion in history, a test code-named Trinity, was a plutonium weapon.

The atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima was based on U235. The atomic bomb which destroyed Nagasaki was based on plutonium.

Some reactors are deliberately designed to produce isotopes which can be used in weapons. Such "breeder" reactors produce little power (or none at all) but the yield of isotopes suitable for use in atomic weapons is much greater. Most of those are designed to optimize conversion of U238 into plutonium.

The Iraqi reactor complex which Israel bombed was not such a reactor. It was a conventional civilian power plant. It may be that this is what Le Sommier was trying to claim.

But let's be very clear about something: all existing civilian nuclear power plants produce plutonium when in operation, even though they don't produce as much as breeder reactors. The Iraqi reactor would have produced plutonium if Israel had not destroyed it. After a few years of normal operations, it would easily have produced enough plutonium for more than one atomic bomb.

There's little doubt that's exactly what Saddam had in mind. And that is why the Israelis decided they had to destroy it.

If Le Sommier claimed that the Iraqi reactor represented no risk to Israel, and therefore claimed that the Israel's attack was not justified, either he was lying or he doesn't know what he is talking about.

UPDATE: I have a long-time reader who is an expert in this area, and he sent me the following email:

Osirak was a 40MWth Materials Test Reactor (MTR) - not designed for the production of power. It was above the threshold at which the IAEA considers it possible for a small reactor to produce a significant quantity of Pu in a year (the threshold is 25MWth).

It was HEU fuelled (giving you a higher, harder neutron flux from a smaller core). The fuel was 93% enriched - well in the weapons grade range - but they would have really only had enough to produce one HEU weapon.

The programmatic justification for building an MTR is to do the basic research that lets you design and build other, larger reactors. For example, Australia has an MTR (10MWth) that was built in 1958 that was used for just such a purpose. When they realized that they weren't going nuclear they converted it for use in radioisotope production.

An MTR is designed for you to be able to introduce material into a neutron flux without shutting down the reactor - it is generally made so that you have fairly precise control of the integral flux and the rate of flux reaching your targets. This makes it ideal for producing Pu of a precisely known grade (not efficient, but effective and quite precise).

The Osirak reactor was clearly a part of the Iraqi weapons program - they did not need to do the basic research that an MTR is designed for because they clearly had no intention of building their own power reactors from scratch (apart from it being cheaper and safer to buy a proven design, the Iraqis did not have the scientific, technical or engineering resources necessary to start from scratch).

Any suggestion that this reactor was not suitable for use in a weapons program is sheer fantasy and an insult to the intelligence of a reader (Le Sommier's readers/listeners not yours).

I was not aware of that. It certainly makes the French decision to build it look bad, doesn't it?

Update: Via Will Collier I find this about the Osirak plant.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040727.1609

(Captain's log): Hitting the old mailbag, Rob wrote:

I'm a frequent reader and enjoy your writing immensely. As a non-engineer your articles on engineering give me great insight into the mind of engineering types and help to point out problems that do not occur to laymen. In my work, I often interact with engineers and programmers and this has helped me understand their constraints and dispels the myth of the Obstinate Engineer. That is, the can't vs. won't syndrome and in some cases has helped me figure out who is full of it and who isn't. That said, I find myself more drawn to large and ambitious engineering projects. Previously, I emailed you about the Freedomship which you said is likely a scam and pointed me to an article you wrote on it. While I agree on it's infeasibility, I didn't think it's a scam so much as a delusion. However, I've been tracking the progress (or lack thereof) and think you are probably right.

Onward: I've also been following the creation of the "Palm Project" and "The World" project in Dubai. Similarly, the Hydropolis is fascinating. I know the two Palm projects are underway as is "the world" but Hydropolis appears to be stalled in the concept stage. My question (yes, I'm finally there) is something as ambitious as the Palm project possible b/c it's driven by one may (the Sheik) with massive wealth and political power? I'm not a subscriber to the "Great Man of History" theory but he appears to be thinking big and looking forward far moreso than his neighbors. I guess I'm looking for your thoughts about grand engineering projects in general as you don't seem to write about them much.

Care for another engineering aphorism? Don't start vast projects based on half-vast ideas.

I happen to think the "Freedom Ship" project is a scam, but such projects can be evaluated without reference to the motivation of those who propose them. It often doesn't matter all that much whether they are crooks or deluded fools, or just unwise.

I can't say I've heard of either the "Palm Project" or the "Hydropolis Project", and I don't really have the inclination to delve into them deeply. Based on a quick look at the home page, the Palm Project seems large and very ambitious but there's nothing inherently silly or misguided about it. That kind of thing is not unprecedented, though. (Consider, for instance, the Kansai airport.)

The Hydropolis project is a lot more speculative, but I don't see any fundamental problems with the concept. I'm not at all certain that it's wise, however. Such an underwater hotel, open to the public, would be particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It would not take much initial damage caused by gunfire or small bombs to initiate a cascading failure which would destroy the entire place and kill everyone in it.

As to the idea of "great men", a lot of things can be done if the backers are willing to lose vast amounts of money, or if they aren't even thinking in terms of "making/losing money".

I don't write about "grand engineering projects in general" because they can't be discussed in general. Some grand engineering projects are boondoggles which will never be finished; some are technically feasible but make no commercial sense. Some are completely reasonable commercially. Some could be reasonable but fail anyway because those in charge make stupid decisions.

The devil is always in the details. They can't be discussed in general because there's little they have in common in general except scale and ambition.

The Chunnel was financed with a mixture of government money and private investment. It was successfully built, and it's been operating ever since. Is it a "success"? It depends on what you think was the project goal. It was partly a prestige project, and it is probably successful in those terms. But it will never make back the investments; so from a commercial standpoint it is not a success.

Another "great project" was the annihilation of smallpox worldwide. That one was motivated almost entirely by humanitarianism. It was financed with a mixture of government money and money from private foundations, and so far as we know it was a total success in eliminating one of the great diseases which has plagued the human race throughout history.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) project is one I've been watching for a long time, and I've always been very impressed with it, and I've written about it several times (e.g. here). It's a scientific instrument in Chile built by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), financed by European governments. It's an amazing engineering achievement, and will end up being an extremely valuable scientific asset as well.

By contrast, the Superconducting Super Collider project in the US did not get finished. Ultimately Congress decided that the price tag was just too great compared to the benefit. About two billion dollars were spent, and a huge tunnel was drilled, but nothing was ever installed in that tunnel.

There have been a lot of "grand engineering projects". Some were clearly successful; some were clear failures. Some are difficult to evaluate.

But the differences between them are much more important than any apparent similarities. And that's why I haven't written about such projects in general: there's nothing to say.

Bob wrote:

I don't hear a thing about North Korea. What's going on there?

The same as before. The Bush administration continues to pursue a strategy I approvingly referred to as "Engaged apathy".

There won't be any significant progress until after the November election. If Bush loses, there won't be any progress until after the inauguration. (If there comes a point somewhat before the election where there's no longer any serious doubt that Bush will win, progress might also resume. If there comes a point where there's no serious doubt that Kerry will win, that would guarantee there would be no progress at all until next year.)

In any situation where the real power balance is shifting, or if the situation is fluid and unpredictable, it's very rare for there to be diplomatic progress in negotiations.

Remember that negotiations have nothing to do with justice, and indeed very little to do with the issues. It's all about relative power and relative urgency.

The original reason the NK's began to kick up a fuss was the hope that they could get a sweet deal in order to shut them up while we were busy in Iraq. This year they're hoping to get bought off before the election. But Bush isn't going to do that.

The NK's hope that if they don't get bought off, they can make themselves an issue in the election campaign and help get Bush defeated. Then, perhaps, a Democratic administration might be more inclined to return to a policy of appeasement. Their potential to affect the campaign is the reason they hope Bush will capitulate and buy them off.

The only way the US can "make progress" in the short term is by making a particularly generous offer, but that isn't going to happen while Bush is president. Absent American capitulation, there will be "progress" only if the NK or the PRC want progress.

Thus nothing important will happen until after this presidential election is settled, one way or the other.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040727.1209

(On Screen): In an editorial originally from the Boston Globe, Charles M. Sennott says that Europeans are rooting for Kerry in this election.

‘‘The foreign policy establishment in the Democratic Party is not substantively different from that of the Republicans, certainly not in the Middle East,’’ the diplomat said. ‘‘But with Kerry the feeling is that there will at least be a dialogue, an attempt at understanding.’’ Steven Everts, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank, said, ‘‘This is a foreign policy election for the U.S. and a critical election for the world.’’ ...

‘‘If Bush is defeated, Europe will say this was a difficult period, but an aberration,’’ Everts said. ‘‘Four more years of Bush, however, will have a long-term impact on European policy, and the development of a permanent rift between the U.S. and Europe.’’ ...

Many pundits in Europe regard Kerry’s public comment in March that foreign leaders preferred him over Bush as a clumsy political gaffe, but it reflects a widely held European view that Bush embodies much about America that the world loves to detest. The long lines at cinemas from Paris to Prague for Michael Moore’s ‘‘Fahrenheit 911’’ attest to that. Newspapers and magazines and television talk shows and speeches in parliaments across Europe make the sentiment apparent on a daily basis. Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School and a top economic adviser in the Clinton administration who is now advising Kerry, said, ‘‘It’s important to note that this election is about America and its superpower status.’’

So for the Democrats, when you vote, "Do it... for the Europeans."

For the Republicans, when you vote, "Do it... to the Europeans."

I know which of those appeals more to me. Easy choice...

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040726.1255

(Captain's log): I really resent it when someone assumes I'm a gullible fool. Anthony Cospito did so today, when he sent me email which began:

Dear Steven,

I'm an avid reader of your blog and thought you would want to know about a new book  that's been getting quite a bit of buzz. Bishop Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev and Newt Gingrich read it and highly recommend it. The book is called...

...but I'm not going to quote any more, because I have no intention of doing this guy any favors.

Bishop Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, Newt Gingrich? Quite a list, don't you think? Between the three of them, they pretty much cover the political spectrum. Bishop Tutu made a critical contribution to ending apartheid in South Africa, and recently hit the news when he bitterly denounced the invasion of Iraq. Common Dreams thinks highly of him.

Gorbachev, of course, is (ahem) the guy who really should be given credit for ending the Cold War rather than Ronald Reagan. So between Tutu and Gorbie, you've got the left covered. Gingrich, of course, is there for anyone on the political right.

So that's quite the short list of celebrities who "read it and highly recommend it". However, I'm skeptical.

This email made my bullshit detector buzz loud enough to be heard next door. Everything about this rang false. It reads like a publicity blurb. It sure doesn't read like a message composed by an "avid reader". I get enough of those to have some idea what they're like.

So I started looking into it. The email header indicated that it had been sent from IP [], which a reverse-DNS translates as "", a RoadRunner cable modem in New York City. But the email address he gave isn't on RoadRunner. Rather, it is associated with a site belonging to one "James Cospito", presumably a relative. It seems to be a media/advertising agency, and it's obviously not a big-budget operation. (He's placed his portfolio on "" instead of hosting it himself.)

I got onto my server and grepped my referer logs for that IP, and found exactly what I expected to find: [] has never visited my site before today.

He arrived at my main page with a puzzling refer from Yahoo:

I don't know enough about Yahoo to know exactly what that indicates. (My first thought was that he was running through Yahoo's online list of politically-oriented blogs, but if he was that should have been the refer; I've seen those before. It also doesn't make sense as a search-engine result; I've seen those, too.) (update: Aha! the answer below.)

Whatever it is, Yahoo responds to it with an HTTP 302 redirect to my main page. From there, he only accessed two other pages on this server. First he followed the "contact" link to get my email address, and then he followed the "biography" link. I suspect that was so he could find my name, so that he could personalize the greeting.

That's odd, to say the least, since the biography link text on my sidebar is "Steven Den Beste's Biography". You'd think that would be a big hint, wouldn't you? But if he was in a mass-mailing groove, then "find and follow the bio" would be step three.

Here's the email he got in response:

On Mon, 26 Jul 2004 13:21:22 -0400, you wrote:

>Dear Steven,
>I'm an avid reader of your blog...

Uh-huh... Sure you are. I really resent being taken for a gullible fool who can be snowed with shallow flattery.

Never mind the small detail that you have never visited my site before today, and that the only thing you did today when you visited was to go directly to the "contact" page to get my email address, and then to my "biography" page to find out that my name is "Steven" so you could personalize the above greeting on your form letter.

>...and thought you would want to know about a
>new book that's been getting quite a bit of buzz.

Or rather, you hoped you could con me into helping to create such a buzz.

Welcome to my Bozo Bin.

I really resent this kind of thing. Did he actually think that I'd fall for it? Was I supposed to be taken in because he addressed me by name, and told me how big a fan he was?

Answer: he didn't know if I would fall for it, but there was no harm in trying. If I did, he got free publicity for his client's book. If I didn't, maybe another political blogger would be more gullible. I'm confident I'm not the only person he sent this to.

Anthony Cospito, for conspicuous service above and beyond the call of duty, you have been awarded the Order of Bozo. Wear it in good health.

Update: Regarding that Yahoo refer, Dave writes:

I'd say your first thought is dead on.  When I go to Yahoo's list, all the sites are linked to with links, and the link to your site is exactly what you posted.  I expect those links point to a script that logs clicks before sending the redirect, to gather data for their "Most Popular" section.

For a moment that confused me. When I had looked at that page, all the URLs looked clean. Then I remembered that I had Proxomitron's "Unprefix URLs" filter enabled, which removes that kind of crap. When I disabled that filter and loaded the Yahoo "political weblog" page again, the URL for my site was exactly the one I found in my referer.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040724.1758

(On Screen): Man, you just can't make up stuff like this:

BOSTON (Reuters) - Security officers won't be the only professionals coming to Boston in unprecedented numbers for the Democratic National Convention.

Practitioners of the world's oldest profession are seeking reinforcements to help service some of the 35,000 visitors -- plus untold numbers of police reinforcements -- expected in the coming week when Democrats name Sen. John Kerry their presidential candidate.

"Every convention brings in more people, and women fly in from all over the country to work it," said Robyn Few, a prostitute on probation who runs the Sex Workers Outreach Project, an advocacy group.

"There will be girls from California and from the South in Boston this week," she said. "I hope a lot of women make a lot of money and make a lot of men really happy."

While Boston has played host to a number of conventions, a national political convention draws larger crowds than the city is accustomed to and security for the event is said to be unprecedented amid terrorism concerns.

For weeks, escort services have plastered advertisements in magazines and on the Internet asking women to work the convention.

Even local strip clubs are putting out the word that more women are needed.

"We are looking for more girls right now," said Frank Caswell, who runs the Foxy Lady club outside Boston. "Obviously, hospitality and beauty are expected and the girls must bring something that is enticing to see."

Local agencies said they charge anywhere from $200 an hour for a little company in a delegate's hotel room; rates at national agencies can be five times that much.

Several sex workers said political conventions were often particularly lucrative. Democratic organizers wanted to point out that many delegates are bringing their families.

"This really is a G-rated event," said DNC spokeswoman Mariellen Burns.

Write your own punchline!

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040724.1347

(On Screen via long range sensors): Pej points to a news report about CIA infiltration of al Qaeda. In Pej's comment thread, Conrad responds:

Infiltration was always a logical plan. It should have been done better in the 90s, but better late than never.

As I posted one moderately long comment, I spotted Conrad's comment. It needs an answer, and rather than add another long comment on Pej's site, I decided to write here.

We engineers have an aphorism: The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

Encarta Dictionary defines feasible as "possible: capable of being accomplished or put into effect", but that definition is wrong. Something is "possible" if it is not "impossible". As long as it doesn't embody a logical contradiction or violate the laws of physics, it is possible.

Feasibility is much more restrictive. Feasibility is fundamentally pragmatic; it's about practicality. For something to be feasible, it must be possible to accomplish it within an acceptable schedule, at an acceptable cost, using resources which are available to you. It means that you as a manager would be willing to accept it as an assignment because you had a plan which demonstrated that you had reasonable expectation of success without relying on miracles or magic.

In my previous life as a technology consultant, I was often handed plans in which the critical step seemed to entail the use of expensive equipment that the client didn't have, and had no intention of installing. It was not unheard of, in fact, for plans to require equipment that hadn't actually been invented. The first time it happened, I naively went to my project manager to inquire about it.

"What happens here?" I asked him, pointing to the space between the two steps that I couldn't quite figure out how to bridge.

His eyes crinkled with a sort of world-weary sympathy as he nodded towards that pregnant space. "That," he intoned solemnly, "is where the magic happens."

We engineers get told to produce all kinds of things which are viewed as being desirable. But sometimes they are not feasible, and when we try to explain the reasons why, we soon get used to being told, "Don't tell us why you can't do it, tell us how you're going to do it." We get accused of being defeatist, unimaginative, gutless, stupid, uncreative, doctrinaire, inflexible, uncooperative. We get admonished to "think outside the box". We are preached at about how we should be thinking "Yes" instead of "No". We're told to stop thinking about "problems"; we are told that we should refer to them as "opportunities". (One engineering wag responded, "We're surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.")

Which is to say that we get beaten about the head and shoulders with platitudes.

That demonstrates another rather bitter engineering aphorism: "Everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself." He sees something he really wants, and doesn't want to be told that he can't have it, even if it is a fact that he can not have it. He doesn't want to hear "No" even if "No" is the real answer. Engineers are magicians, and we're supposed to make magic happen. We've pulled off so many miracles before, so why not this one?

A lot of people know what they want. This certainly happens in politics: "Win without war." "Get cooperation and support from traditional allies." But they're quite often woefully short on plans. The more idealistic they are, the more likely it is they'll deny that they should even be required to contribute such a plan. Someone else should figure out how to make it happen; the idealist's job is to show us all the real destination.

Every once in a while someone comes up with the "obvious" solution to this war: switch to "alternate energy sources" so that we cease needing Arab oil, and perform that switch without drastically changing our lifestyle or economic activity. Do it in a small number of years (e.g. five), and implement it worldwide so that there is no longer any market for Arab oil. There are a lot of problems with this basic idea, but one in particular is that it isn't feasible.

I have tried a couple of times to explain why (most recently here/here/here). It's not that I think we should totally ignore "alternate energy sources"; it's that I am quite sure that they cannot be developed soon enough, large enough, cheaply enough, to yield the proposed political consequences.

But every time I say that, I get dismissed as being someone who "doesn't have enough faith in American engineering genius". I get flooded with mail from people who send me links to reports of some new cool thing (e.g. petroleum made from turkey guts, or "biodiesel", or something even more obscure) who think that if only I were informed about such a thing I would suddenly undergo an epiphany and wave my engineering magic wand and make it all happen. That's why "alternate energy sources" is one of small number of subjects I always fear to even mention here.

I do not propose to enter that lion's den again. [DWL!] about it. (The Bozo Bin awaits those foolish enough to ignore this warning.)

Infiltration is obviously a good thing. But Conrad is wrong in referring to it as a plan. Infiltration is a goal, not a plan. A goal is what you want to achieve; a plan tells you how to achieve it. A goal is a destination; a plan is driving instructions for reaching that destination.

"Win without war." "Infiltrate al Qaeda's leadership." Yes, but how? Those are wonderful goals, but what is the plan?

If you were chosen to replace George Tenet as the head of the CIA, how would you go about infiltrating the top ranks of al Qaeda without relying on miracles? (They're the religious zealots, OK? Let them rely on miracles!)

You'd have to find and identify very special people, reliable traitors. Since that's almost a contradiction in terms, such people are not at all common. You have to find people who can be bought (or blackmailed), who will stay bought, and who will be able to avoid being spotted by others as having been bought.

Either they will already be in al Qaeda, or they will have a good chance of getting themselves recruited into al Qaeda into positions of significant responsibility. That's hard enough to do when you're talking about above-the-board organizations such as large foreign corporations or foreign governments. With a small shadowy organization like al Qaeda, it's a whole lot tougher.

Identifying potential recruits, locating them, making contact with them, and making a deal with them, is non-trivial. Historically speaking, usually they contact you rather than the other way around. For instance, the KGB didn't recruit John Walker Jr. He originally contacted them. If someone like that does contact you, it's obviously a golden opportunity. But that's also luck. You shouldn't make a plan which relies on luck.

If no such potential candidate contacts you, how do you propose to actively identify and seek out potential candidates? It's a tough problem. It may come close to being insoluble.

When it comes to engineering wet dreams, if I could wish for one major technological advance right now, I'd wish for a portable electrical power source with 1000 times greater energy density than anything we have today. I want a power pack with the following characteristics:

  • Weight <= 5 kg
  • Manufacturing cost in quantity <= $100
  • Usable energy >= 100 megajoules
  • Usable power >= 5 kilowatts
  • Compact shape
  • Quiet (no significant sound generation in operation)
  • Not dangerous (i.e. no significant release of radiation or toxic fumes, no explosion hazard)

Give me that, and I'll change your world completely. Give me that one thing, and I'll give you technological miracles beyond your wildest dreams. I'll give you flying cars, flying backpacks, exoskeletons, powered prosthetics. I'll create entirely new industries. I'll completely change the office, the manufacturing floor, the street, the home. And I will totally change the battlefield.

But I'm not going to get that power pack. It's a wonderful dream, but it isn't even remotely feasible now. In fact, we don't even have a theoretical basis for such a thing.

Battery technology hasn't been improving very rapidly, because it's a fundamentally difficult problem. Over the last 30 years, energy density in portable power sources has improved by less than a factor of 5, and unless there's a major breakthrough in fuel cell technology it's unlikely to improve by more than about another five-fold over current state-of-the-art in the foreseeable future.

That's nowhere near enough, and it means a lot of really cool things must stay on the drawing board. We could build them, but we can't adequately power them except by plugging them into the wall.

That power pack would be a miracle. But I don't believe in miracles. (That's why I was successful as an engineer.)

By the same token, it's obvious that we would really, really like to buy some top members of al Qaeda. But the fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible.

Sometimes you can't get there from here. You don't get to ignore issues of feasibility. You don't get to make plans which include a "miracle mile" or which rely on magic.

Anyone can solve any problem if they don't have to concern themselves with gritty details. And that's why everything is easy for the man who doesn't have to do it himself.

Identifying goals is easy. The difference between success and failure is differentiating feasible goals from infeasible ones. That's where the magic really happens.

Update 20040725: I changed the super-battery capacity from 1 megajoule to 100 megajoules. I keep forgetting just how little energy 1 joule is. At 5 kilowatts, 1 megajoule gets consumed in 3 minutes, 20 seconds. 100 megajoules would last about five and a half hours, which is much more reasonable.

Also, Francis W. Porretto points out that this article nicely complements two posts by the Missus.

Update 20040726: Lexington Green says that we could infiltrate al Qaeda if we just try hard enough. He also shows that he doesn't truly understand the distinction between possible and feasible.

I don't think this is really a feasibility issue. It is more a deployment of assets issue and an institutional/legal issue. There is probably no organization in the world that cannot be penetrated given enough time, willpower and resources. You need to have lots of people who speak the language, who understand the culture, who can pick up in nuances, and who can get around in the appropriate areas without being obviously an American spy. Such people can be hired or trained or both. You need to have the patience to let them insinuate themselves and get involved in activities which will bring them in touch with promising contacts. You must have the resources to bribe or otherwise reward and protect those who help you. You need to maintain secrecy. All of this is feasible, though difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The key word in there is "time-consuming". Yes, the kind of things he describes can be done. And fifteen years from now, once we have actually done those things, we will finally have the resources required to permit us to insinuate moles into the top brass of al Qaeda.

But if al Qaeda still exists by then and is still enough of a threat to be worth infiltrating, we'll already have lost this war. Part of feasibility is timeliness. A solution which is too late is no solution. A solution which requires resources which don't exist is a solution which relies on magic.

TMLutas also responded, though not to the main point of this article. His point is valid, though it is not as important as he might think it is.

Sometimes Pointy Haired Bosses (PHBs) ask the infeasible of engineers and are unsatisfied with the engineer's realistic response that it's not going to happen. But other times, the PHBs ask for something that is feasible but either beyond the imagination or beyond the work ethic of the particular engineer. The response by the engineer in this latter case is verbally indistinguishable from the former case. The PHB can't tell the difference. This leads to guessing on the part of the PHB as to when the engineers are lying and two bad outcomes, infeasible projects going forward and feasible projects getting stopped.

Engineers are just as prone to lying as anyone else is, and burying the non-technical with baffling jargon has a long and notorious history. But there's an obvious solution: the manager should ask for, listen to, and try to understand the explanation given by the engineer. The two cases are only verbally indistinguishable if you don't understand what the words mean.

So the socially useful question is what is the appropriate tool set for PHBs and other non-engineers to tell when the engineers are lying, mistaken, or correct.

Those are three distinct cases. If the engineer is sincere but mistaken, there's really nothing you can do. You have to rely on your people. If your engineer employee tells you he doesn't think what you want is feasible, then assuming you believe him you have to assume he's correct, or terminate him and hire someone else.

It should also be pointed out that part of feasibility is "working with the resources available". What he's telling you is that he doesn't think he can do it. The fact that someone else might conceivably be able to is an unhelpful observation: you don't have "someone else" working for you. So in a real sense, Lutas's third case is an example of magic. All you have to do is assume the existence of an employee smarter and more informed than the ones you've got, and you're all set.

On the other hand, Lutas's other two disaster scenarios – giving up on projects that are feasible or attempting infeasible projects because the engineer was lying – have the same imperfect solution: the PHB has to learn enough so that the justification given to him is no longer a mountain of meaningless jargon and buzzwords.

But there's no perfect solution to this. That's life in the big city.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040721.1341

(Captain's log): Michael writes:

You've written on a couple of occasions about, as you put it, "The Bush Masterstroke". It seems to me that we've gone quite a while now without one.

I'm wondering if you see one coming, or circumstances under which such a play could be made. The obvious assumption would be that such a move would, by necessity, have to come before the election.

One such case was this article, in which I wrongly predicted a masterstroke for late January 2003. (You know how it goes...)

I've thought about that. Of course, such a masterstroke isn't always possible. Opportunities for such things don't come along every day. Also, when I wrote about that I was talking about cases where Bush eventually made some specific critical speech, or enumerated some specific critical policy, which fundamentally changed everything. I doubt anything like that is coming.

There's a more generic sense of this, however, which some refer to as "rope-a-dope" (in reference to the famous tactic used by Muhammad Ali to some of his last major boxing matches). Bush is also distinctive because of the fact that he seems to largely ignore his critics, and tends to let themselves wear themselves out and use up their ammunition. When he thinks the time is right, he then opens up on them and tends to bury them. I think something like that's coming, and it's going to be even more important than any of the previous ones.

A common lament by people who hate Bush begins with the fact that in the 2000 election, Gore got more votes total nationally than Bush did. That is not unprecedented; there have been several previous Presidential elections in which the loser got more total votes than the winner.

Their claim about the popular vote in 2000 is true. But the popular vote is irrelevant, and the claim itself is specious. We don't choose the President using the national popular vote; we choose the President via votes in the electoral college. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns tailored their campaign strategies towards prevailing in the electoral college. If our Constitutional system selected the President based on popular vote, both campaigns would have been run entirely differently, and there's no way to know who would have won.

Similarly, I think it's clear that a lot of the attention being paid right now to polls of voter preference is misguided. You see a lot of articles and blog posts which say, "If the election were held today, this is how the electoral votes would probably split."

Those poll numbers don't matter. They also don't predict anything. The election isn't being held today. It will be held in November, and the only poll which will really matter is the November election. If the election had been scheduled for now, both campaigns would have behaved much differently this spring, and the poll numbers we'd be seeing today would be much different. But the election isn't being held today, and the Republicans haven't started their campaign.

I don't know exactly when the Republican campaign will finally get serious. It doesn't seem likely they'll wait until October, so my best guess is it will be in September some time.

And I am pretty confident that when they do really get serious, the consequences for the Kerry campaign will be catastrophic. After the November election, a lot of people are going to wonder why it was that anyone ever thought that Kerry had a substantial chance of winning.

And part of the reason it's going to go so badly for Kerry is that there is very careful low-level preparation going on.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq last year, there was broad consensus among observers (including me) that there would be one to two weeks of air preparation before ground ops began (which was still viewed as a radical change compared to the six weeks of air preparation before ground action in 1991). CENTCOM crossed everyone up when it began ground operations on the first day of active hostilities.

It turned out that CENTCOM had already done most of the important air preparation in the previous year, slowly, gradually, subtly. Some of that hit the news (e.g. a bombing attack that took out a critical fiber communications junction and cut off telecommunications between Baghdad and southern Iraq) but most of it did not.

I can see hints of that kind of careful preparation being done politically and diplomatically, which will turn out to be critical for the campaign. I think that some of Bush's international actions recently have been partially intended to undermine Kerry.

Let's make clear that I do not think that has been the only motive for the Bush administration. I do not see any case in foreign policy where I have concluded that they seriously sacrificed the nation's interests solely to gain a campaign advantage. (Domestic policy is a different matter, but I don't want to go into that.)

But there have been cases where choices have been made and policies selected in part because of their effect on the campaign.

Bush has by no means embraced the leftist position regarding international law and governance and institutions. In all cases where reliance on such structures would have been catastrophic for us, he has unambiguously rejected them. (Two examples: the Kyoto accords, and the International Criminal Court.)

But there have been a lot of cases where the cost to the national interest in trying to deal with such international institutions has been low, and quite often in such cases the Bush administration has chosen to attempt to work within those institutions. The results have uniformly been unimpressive, but that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Bush campaign.

Kerry has made a lot of nebulous pie-in-the-sky statements about involving NATO (and "traditional allies") in Iraq and in the larger "War on Terror". Recently Bush went to NATO and asked for help in Iraq, and he got rebuffed.

Bush went to NATO after the transfer of sovereignty to the new provisional Iraqi government. "Traditional Allies" in Europe (i.e. France) had previously said they would be willing to help in Iraq, but only if asked by a sovereign Iraqi government. But when both the US government and a sovereign Iraqi government did directly request NATO assistance, they (the "traditional allies") still said "Non!"

As it turns out, NATO assistance would have been useful at the time it was requested, but it wasn't really vital. The majority of NATO members are already helping out, and as the Iraqis themselves take more responsibility for their own internal security, there will be less need for foreign troops. Bush was publicly rebuffed, but that harmed NATO's reputation more than Bush's reputation.

When the Republicans finally start campaigning seriously, if Kerry continues to talk about NATO involvement, the Republicans will be able to respond by saying that Bush tried to involve NATO, and certain hostile nations within NATO blocked any NATO involvement.

There's been a lot of that kind of thing going on. What I see is the political equivalent of slow, relatively surreptitious air preparations intended to set up eventual rapid large-scale ground operations. Critical targets are being carefully targeted and addressed, slowly and carefully.

I think this may be one of the reasons the Bush administration has not kissed off the UN. Realistically, the UN is much more useful to our enemies than it is to us. It would be emotionally quite satisfying for the US to formally walk out, formally cease paying dues, and to formally give the UN five years to leave US soil. But the Bush administration has continued to deal with the UN, and continued to at least make an attempt to work within the framework of the UN. Doing so is utterly futile and permits our enemies to score short term points. But it also prepares the political ground for any debate in the campaign about the UN.

The primacy of the UN (as the only thing which exists now that looks even remotely like a "world government") is a fundamental leftist foreign policy doctrine, and another which Kerry has gingerly mentioned in his campaign.

Rather than formally breaking with the UN, the Bush administration has continued to work within it when doing so did not seriously jeopardize American interests. And the UN has not acquitted itself well. The record will pretty cleearly show just how useless the UN is, and how dreadfully irresponsible it would be for this nation to formally accept a requirement for UNSC approval for any active or aggressive foreign policy, including military intervention.

Rather than outright rejecting leftist proposals, the Bush administration has been trying to show how deeply flawed they are in practice, by trying to partially implement them when there's little risked by doing so. Rather the publicly denounce the UN and NATO in response to leftist calls for more reliance on both, the Bush administration has tried to deal with both, fully expecting failure.

Winning an election is like preparing a multicourse meal. There's skill involved, but there's also timing. You not only have to prepare all the dishes correctly, you need to make sure they are finished at just the right time. I see undercurrents of a lot of preparations which will bear fruit in the October time frame.

I think one of the most notable and important decisions made by the Bush administration was to schedule the transfer of sovereignty several months ahead of time, and to stick to that schedule. There were a lot of legitimate strategic and tactical reasons for doing that, but it will also have consequences for the US election.

By October, it's possible that everything in Iraq will have gone to hell, but I don't expect that. I also don't expect the insurgency to collapse and for Iraq to have been transformed into an idyllic and peaceful land of brotherhood and acceptance. What I do expect is that by October the interim government in Iraq will have firmed up and will largely have come to be seen as "legitimate" and will generally be doing a pretty good job in face of terrible challenges.

And that will mean that by October it will no longer be possible for leftists to portray the invasion of Iraq as "American imperialism". By then I think it will be very difficult to characterize the new Iraqi government as some kind of American puppet regime. It will no longer be possible to portray the insurgents as "patriots fighting to repel foreign invaders", since they'll be primarily fighting to overthrow the native Iraqi government and primarily fighting against and killing Iraqis. (Sure, they can try to portray the situation in those terms, but I don't think they will convince many undecided American voters.)

The US Army and Marines aren't going to leave Iraq, but by October they'll no longer be significantly involved in day-to-day patrolling. "Defensive" operations like patrols will be Iraqi; our forces for the most part will only engage in combat in large operations, such as the inevitable day when Falluja finally gets cleaned out. (I don't know if that will happen before the election, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

The Republicans are also going to benefit from other things which will likely happen over the next few months. If the Palestinians do collapse into full-scale civil war, it will help Bush more than hurt him. As Chirac's political situation in France continues to weaken, that too will help Bush. Continued revelations about UN corruption (particularly UNSCAM but not confined to that) will be helpful. The Republicans are starting to lay groundwork for making Iran an issue in the election.

(There are other possible events whose political consequences are impossible to predict: a new major terrorist attack on the US which was successful or unsuccessful or partial, a new major terrorist attack elsewhere (especially if it was in the UK), North Korea detonating a nuke, Iran detonating a nuke, a revolution in Pakistan, any of several critical world leaders either being assassinated or deposed from power, etc. Since the consequences of such events are impossible to predict and could just as easily benefit Bush as Kerry depending on circumstances, I do not factor any of these into my conclusion in this post.)

As the US economy continues to improve, and as lagging economic indicators (such as hiring) finally respond, and as international diplomacy continues to spiral into madness, and as the Republicans continue careful preparations, then come October I think the Kerry campaign is going to discover that it doesn't have any issues remaining to it which it can use to try to appeal to the American center.

The Republicans will have no such problem coming up with issues. When the Republicans finally get serious, one of the things they're going to do is to shine a strong spotlight on one of Kerry's great weaknesses, which I wrote about a couple of days ago: the fundamental anti-American values held by the left pole of the Democratic Party. During the period last year when Kerry was trying to out-Dean Dean in order to woo the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party", he said a lot of things on-camera which the Republicans are going to make damned sure come back to haunt him come October. In my previous post, I said:

And this is the millstone around John Kerry's neck: a substantial proportion of the core supporters of the Democratic party largely agree with Bancroft-Hinchey's view of the US, and Kerry dare not repudiate their beliefs. At the same time, he doesn't dare acknowledge those beliefs for fear of alienating the majority of American voters.

If he alienates those leftists, some significant percentage might decide to vote for Nader. The bigger risk is that a considerably larger percentage might decide to not vote at all if he convincingly repudiates their beliefs. Yet their beliefs are in many ways profoundly repugnant to the American center, who would be repelled if Kerry convincingly embraced those beliefs. And so he prevaricates.

The Republicans won't let him get away with that. The graphic image from the 1984 election which comes down to those of us who were adults then is "teflon". Reagan was the "Teflon candidate". (Mondale was occasionally referred to as the "Velcro candidate".) I think the graphic image we will retain from the 2004 election is the waffle.

The Republicans will comb (have already combed, in fact) his record of attributable public statements (i.e. statements Kerry cannot deny making), especially while on the campaign trail last year but also during this year's campaign and from his career in the Senate, and will try to portray Kerry's position on various issues in terms most likely to alienate the American center. The Republicans will try to portray Kerry as a politician who is willing to say anything to anyone on any issue, but who secretly is fully in sympathy with the most repulsive left wingers in the Democratic coalition.

For some particular issue they'll quote his own words and show that he's been willing to take multiple contradictory positions on that issue, with bonus points for lame explanations ("I voted for it before I voted against it"). Then they'll point to his voting record in the Senate on that issue to demonstrate that he's really, deep down, one'a them Liberals. They can, and will, try to do this on almost every major issue in the campaign.

(Foreign readers who are not intimately familiar with American politics need to know that in the US the word "Liberal" is used to refer to a political position which is essentially socialist and redistributionist. It's not dissimilar to European "Third Way Social Democracy", but it has little to do with liberalism in the classic sense. American "Liberals" are not liberal. American liberals are generally seen as "Conservative". And American "Liberals" are a distinct political minority whose fortunes have been falling since the Reagan presidency.)

The Republicans will portray Kerry as a Liberal and a liar.

Unless Kerry wants to cede control of his public image to the Republicans, he'll have to cease equivocating. He'll have to take a stand on the issues, and try to convince voters that he really does mean what he says. There are a wide variety of ways this can turn out, but all of them end up being bad for Kerry. He either drives too many voters away because they reject his sincere position, or he drives too many voters away because they decide he's lying about his position, or he drives too many voters away because they decide he is an opportunist who doesn't have any principles at all beyond personal ambition.

By October, the Bush administration will also have a significant record of achievement it can use in the campaign. Absent some unexpected and unpredictable catastrophe, the economy should be strong and growing, unemployment will have fallen considerably, and the situation in Iraq will have improved drastically in terms of political value (which, let me emphasize, will have little to do with any rational evaluation of the situation there). The overall situation will be far from perfect, and the war won't be over, but the Bush administration will be well placed to say, "We've made a great deal of progress, and we intend to make even more in our second term."

The Democrats will try to attack that record, but even if they are partially successful they will not be able to damage Bush anything like as much as the Republicans are going to damage Kerry.

Even if the Democrats weren't revealing themselves as incompetent clowns, come October they would still find themselves in deep trouble.

So what I conclude is that the next Bush "masterstroke" is going to be the November election. The Republicans and the Bush administration have been biding their time, and conserving their money. They have been carefully accumulating political ammunition and have resisted the urge to expend any of it too soon. They've laid the groundwork for a very effective campaign this autumn, and the Democrats are going to get routed.

Last October I wrote an analysis of the American party system and primary process and tried to show why it meant that the Democrats had no hope of winning the White House next November. In that post, I said:

Any political position or locus of policies which is viable within the Democratic primary process will be fatal in the general election. Any locus of policies which would be even remotely viable in the general election (such as the one held by Lieberman) is fatal within the primary process. Like Groucho Marx, who said that he wouldn't want to belong to any club which would have him, the Democrats will refuse to nominate any candidate who actually would have a chance of winning.

I still feel comfortable with the analysis in that article. As a presidential candidate, Kerry is deeply vulnerable. The Republicans are carefully preparing the groundwork for a full-scale assault on his greatest weaknesses. Once they open up active hostilities, it's actually going to end up being very much like the other Bush masterstrokes, where everything changes permanently and no one can again look at the fundamental issues the same way.

Update: Will Collier comments.

And it seems that Gerard van der Leun has been thinking along some of the same lines as I have.

JBC wonders why Joshua Micah Marshall and I have come to such diametrically opposite conclusions. All I can say is that I'm not responsible for what Joshua thinks. But I do think Joshua should read this.

In other words, you must act stupid so that those you are trying to outwit will never suspect that you are trying to outwit them. But this means you must also actively encourage other people-not just your enemies!-- to think you stupid as well, lest they accidentally blow your cover. And you must make absolutely no effort to change their minds by showing that you are in fact less moronic than they take you to be. And, indeed, the logic of the situation means that your power over your enemies will increase in direct proportions to the contempt with which they view your claims to intellectual competency. In short, the dumber, the better.

And this is enlightening, too. And then he might want to meditate about the possibility that he might be inferring desperation because he would be feeling desperate if he were in their shoes, and because he assumes that they think just like he does.

Of course, if they did think just like Joshua does, they'd be Democrats.

[There's no risk here of "blowing Bush's cover". Even if they read what Harris says, they'll never believe it.]

Update: Wind Rider has an example of accumulating political ammunition.

Update 20040723: Comments from Jay Reding and Sacha.

Update: Peter Schramm comments.

Update 20040725: Robert comments.
And so does the Missus.

Update 20040726: Orrin Judd makes similar comments about the Bush reelection campaign.

permanent link to this entry Stardate 20040721.0303

(On Screen): A Filipino was kidnapped in Iraq, and the group which took him demanded that the Philippines withdraw all its forces ASAP or else they'd cut his head off. They also apparently demanded money.

The Philippines government demonstrated its strength of will and steadfastness by dropping to their knees, begging for mercy and giving the kidnappers everything they wanted.

The technical term for their behavior is "groveling".

The government of the Philippines has taken its foreign policy cue on dealing with terrorists from Spain. And it seems as if it is taking its foreign policy cue on dealing with the US from France (i.e. "Knife them in the back, and then loudly proclaim your eternal friendship"):

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the Philippines will remain a strong ally of the United States, which argued that the pullout would encourage terrorists.

"We still consider the United States as our big brother in the security arena," he said. "Our long-standing and maturing relationship with the United States will survive this hostage crisis. We will maintain our strong stand against terrorism in the face of this isolated event."

So what does it mean for the Philippines to be a "strong ally" of the US? The Philippines government just royally shafted all the other nations who have troops in Iraq, and one thing "strong ally" means that the Philippines government really would like it a lot if the US would just forget about that and pretend nothing had happened.

I would venture to guess the other thing it means is that there should be no limit on the amount of commitment the US should make to help the Philippines should it ever get into trouble and ask for help. It means, "Never mind that we let you down when you needed our help. Just be there for us when we need you."

They're talking to the wrong folks, however. (For two reasons. I don't think the Bush administration will be amused by this.) What they just did puts others at risk, but we're not the "others".

The terrorists have long since given up trying to intimidate the US. They know it won't work. So they're concentrating now on "allies". And since they got such a gratifying response from the government of the Philippines, the next nation in the crosshairs is Japan. Japan will reap the crop planted by the Philippines.

The government of the Philippines better start emphasizing to the Japanese government just how good of friends they are, because when Japanese citizens in Iraq start getting kidnapped, the government in Tokyo is liable to have a hard time remembering it.

In the mean time, I have a quick pointer for the government of the Philippines about American psychology: When someone tells us what good friends they are, we usually assume they are trying to take advantage of us. Real friends don't need to say such things, because real friends demonstrate their friendship with actions, not with words.

Update: The Arroyo government might also want to reassure India, Kenya, Egypt, Poland, Bulgaria, and maybe Australia, too. Ozguru asks why there's any reason to believe that Australians might not also become victims because of this.

It's entirely possible that individual Australians might become victims. It's quite likely more Americans will, too. But they're not as likely to concentrate on Australians and Americans for a couple of reasons. First, neither government is seen as being willing to give in to extortion. Second, individual Australians and Americans are likely to fight back against those who try to capture them.

Muggers don't want a fight, they just want money and are unscrupulous about their means of getting it. Muggers prefer to prey on people who are small, weak, and fearful. Muggers are less inclined to try to take on men who are large and young and walk with their heads held high, because the risk is much greater that the victim would fight back instead of meekly handing over their wallets. (Muggers also don't like working in states which have issued a lot of "concealed-carry" licenses, because there's a greater chance that even those who appear to be small, weak and fearful will be armed and will fight back.)

By the same token, these terrorists in Iraq would rather kidnap Kenyans, Indians, Filipinos, Spaniards and the like. I think they are somewhat less inclined to try to take on Aussies or Yanks, because Aussies and Yanks who are out working in Iraq are likely to be packing and are more likely to defend themselves.

That said, there's no doubt that before this is all through more Americans are going to have their heads sawed off to a musical background of chants of "Allahu Akbar!" I wouldn't want to bet that no Australians will face that fate. But our people won't be primary targets, because the insurgents know that our governments won't make concessions, and know that our people will defend themselves.

There is one major exception, and it is most ironic: the one major group of Aussies and Yanks that the insurgents won't fear are left-leaning reporters and leftist activists who are nominally sympathetic to the insurgency.

During the 1980's, a lot of westerners were taken hostage in Lebanon. The Church of England sent Terry Waite to Beirut to serve as a non-partisan negotiator, but in the end he himself was taken hostage and was held for five years. In 2001 in Afghanistan, a group of reporters died because their car was ambushed; they had been responding to a tip about a story.

The most vulnerable Americans and Aussies in Iraq, those least likely to violently defend themselves, and those most easily conned and captured, are Americans and Aussies who think that they are nominally aligned with the insurgency. Though I hope it doesn't happen, if one of them does end up savagely decapitated it will be very interesting to watch the international reaction.

Update 20040723: The Arroyo government is having just about as much success with its French tactics as the French did. The US government is very unappy, and the US ambassador has returned to the US "for consultations".

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