I can’t help myself; I have to write about this. I know there’s probably no point, but I am going to do it anyway just in case. Immediately after this, I’m going to post some Christmas videos to make up for it.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria. Immediately, hawks in both parties attacked the decision, arguing that it will allow ISIS to regain strength. Many of Trump’s usual allies argued for keeping the troops there longer, and urged him to reverse the decision so ISIS can be defeated.

Here’s my problem with this: the reason ISIS is a household name is because of U.S. military intervention in Iraq. When we installed the new Iraqi government in ’03-‘04, we threw all of Saddam Hussein’s underlings out of power. This was called “de-Ba’athification”, because they were all in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, but it might as well have been called “de-Sunnification” because they were all Sunnis.

As a result, we had a bunch of Sunnis who were exiled, armed, and extremely mad at us and at the heavily Shia government we installed.

Hey, Foreign Policy wonks! Can you guess what happened?

The huge atrocities ISIS committed back in 2014-15 need to be seen as an angry, violent subset of Sunnis getting revenge for being thrown out of power in 2003-04. ISIS sort of existed before we invaded Iraq, but it was infused with a bunch of former soldiers, commanders and politicians after Saddam’s government fell. And most of all, they were given a “stab-in-the-back myth” to justify their revanchism, because they could claim the West was deliberately taking power away from the Sunnis.

So now the military-industrial complex  foreign policy experts say that we need to keep intervening militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities being committed by a group that exists because we intervened militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities.

Look: I’m all about preventing atrocities. I really am. If the most powerful military in the world can’t be used to protect innocent people from evil ones, then what’s it good for? It’s just that I want to hear one of the people currently urging a continued military action explain why this won’t end in a massive disaster like the last one did.

And no, Senator Rubio, I don’t want to hear that “the military advised President Trump not to withdraw.” Of course they did! They’re the military! When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is the most powerful fighting force in history, everything looks like it needs to be occupied by it.

I don’t blame the military commanders for opposing withdrawal. But unless they can give a definitive timeline—“e.g. we will achieve victory in Syria in one year or you can fire all us generals”—they can’t be given the final say on this.

A lot of people will say Trump only did this because his policies mysteriously seem to align with Vladimir Putin’s on every issue. But you know what? “Trump-is-a-puppet” is not in itself a valid criticism. If he does the right thing for the wrong reasons, it’s still the right thing. So if you want to keep the troops in Syria, don’t tell me that a withdrawal benefits Putin. This isn’t a zero-sum game where every action that helps Russia is an automatic loss for the USA.

The folks in the upper-echelons of government still don’t seem to get that the reason so many people voted for Trump was that they were furious at the mistakes the government had made over the years—the mismanagement of the Iraq invasion being one of the biggest examples. If they want to win back their credibility as experts—and with it, the awesome and terrible power of commanding the United States military—they need to prove that they have learned from their mistakes. 

One last note: I’ve seen a number of people complain that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria makes Israel less safe. In my opinion, this is a pretty glass half-empty way to look at it. Yes, it’s true that now Israel will have lost a big ally fighting Iran in the region. But I’m not sure that U.S. participation automatically makes things safer for them. Again, look at what happened with Iraq. Is Israel really safer now that there is a massive terrorist group inadvertently created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq running loose?

The U.S. government is a bloated bureaucracy, led by an ever-rotating cast of characters who change every two to four years, and constantly want to drastically shift policy direction, which is a bit like trying to race an 18-wheeler on a Formula One  track. Most of the people involved are well-intentioned, but the result tends to be that U.S. government intervention causes chaos rather than stability. 

If we’re going to stay and fix the mess in Syria, we have to do it the right way: figure out who the enemy is, have Congress formally declare war on them, institute a draft, and use the full power of the military to defeat them. That was how the United States won its greatest victories, achieved superpower status, and made itself synonymous with Liberty across the globe. Unless we’re willing to do as much again, we will cause more problems than we solve.

I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:

  1. Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
  2. Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
  3. Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.

Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.

The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.

This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology:  “Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.

We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.

Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician. 

Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.

Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.

But most politicians aren’t like Cheney.  For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring. 

This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.

51fQAjMRx9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This book gives a comprehensive and thorough history of the United States government’s plans for surviving a nuclear war. The book spans the Atomic Age, with detailed information from the Truman through Obama administrations, with occasional references to the comparatively primitive security measures under earlier presidents.

There are a number of interesting stories in the book, from the day that President Truman practically shut down Washington as he stepped out to go to the bank to the total chaos and confusion that reigned on 9/11, when the emergency procedures were implemented rather haphazardly.

For all the programs aimed at “continuity of government”, the ultimate conclusion of Presidents, generals, CEOs, and bureaucrats throughout the decades seems to invariably have been that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States as we know it would cease to exist, and survivors—if any—would live under martial law at best for a considerable length of time.

And yet, the preparation proceeds anyway, as the government tries to figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable. In one memorable section, Graff discusses a secret bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, complete with underground chambers for the House and Senate to convene, all maintained without the knowledge of even the CEO of the resort himself.

Throughout the book, I repeatedly thought of this exchange from the British political sitcom Yes, Minister:

Sir Humphrey: There has to be somewhere to carry on government, even if everything else stops.

Minister Hacker: Why?

Sir Humphrey: Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed!

That really summarizes the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The book’s subtitle, “The story of the U.S. government’s secret plan to save itself–while the rest of us die” is a bit unnecessarily hysterical and sinister-sounding, (they can’t really be expected to save everyone, can they?) but it does underscore the inescapable problem of attempting to preserve a way of life that can’t exist in the unimaginably horrible new world that would be created after the bombs went off.

Graff did a lot of research for this book, but too often sacrificed readability in the interest of being thorough. There are plenty of paragraphs that bog down in the alphabet soup of government programs, plans and agency acronyms. (This is perhaps inevitable to some degree—the government loves acronyms.) Even more confusingly, information is sometimes poorly organized, and occasionally repeated in different sections. Once or twice this caused me to think I had accidentally gone back to a section I’d already read.


There’s also at least one flat-out error: on page 278 of the Kindle version, Graff asserts that “Reagan was the first president shot in nearly a century.” This is obviously not true, and probably the result of some kind of copy/paste error. That’s one that anybody would know is wrong, but it made me wonder what other, less-apparent-but-equally-serious errors the editors might have missed.

So, should you read it? A lot of the negative reviews say things like “I could have gotten all this from Wikipedia”. Which is true, but also raises the question, “Then why didn’t you?” A journalist like Graff isn’t required to discover new information—compiling and correlating existing information into one convenient book is also useful. 

Unfortunately, Raven Rock isn’t as convenient as it could have been. A bit more editing and condensing would have improved the book a great deal. As it is, though, there’s a wealth of information for those willing to slog through and find out what secret projects the government has been spending our taxes on in the hopes of surviving Armageddon.

Historians are familiar with the “Miracle of Dunkirk”: the fact that Hitler ordered a halt to the Nazi advance, allowing the British time to evacuate men from the port.  Some argue that had the British been annihilated at Dunkirk, they would have surrendered to Germany.  At any rate, saving all those men was obviously a huge boon for the Allies.

What’s less clear is the reason for the Nazi “halt” order.  Some say it was given because Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, wanted a chance to demonstrate that air power could annihilate the enemy, and wanted ground forces to halt so eh could make his point. (Which he then failed to do.)

Others argue that the order was given because Hitler, being a megalomaniac, wanted to make it clear that he was the one in charge, and by ordering his generals to halt, he could demonstrate supreme authority.

Still others say it simply came down to a matter of logistics.  German armor had advanced so far so rapidly that their supply lines were stretched too far, and they needed to stop to be re-supplied.

Still others argue it was because the Nazis, caught up in their pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical racial delusions, saw the British as being of the same or similar “race”, and were reluctant to annihilate them, preferring they should surrender with few casualties and become part of the Aryan empire they envisaged.

Whatever the reason, the order was given, and it was obeyed.  And that’s the part I find interesting.

Heinz Guderian
Image via Wikipedia

The German advance through France had been led by the rather sinister-looking fellow pictured at right, Heinz Guderian. Guderian was famously a proponent of advancing very fast and unrelentingly surprising the enemy with speed. It’s probably partially thanks to his style that the term blitzkrieg got so famous.

Guderian was also not hesitant to ignore orders.  Higher-ranking officers were shocked by just how quickly he was moving through France, and ordered him to halt.  Guderian would ignore them and advance anyway, looking to press his advantage and not give the French time to regroup.

So, my question is: why did Guderian finally obey the order to halt at Dunkirk, when he had a golden opportunity? It seems wildly out of character for him. Was it simply that an order from Hitler himself he felt he had to obey? Had he in fact stretched his supply lines to the breaking point, and really was incapable of continuing to press the attack?

It’s nothing more than a footnote in the larger historical context, but it’s very interesting to me.

Well, it’s been about 8 days since Donald Trump officially became President.  Here are some facts that have jumped out to me about his administration:

1. Trump is influenced heavily by what he sees on TV, especially CNN and Fox News.

Starting with the crowd size kerfuffle, it’s clear that image matters a lot to President Trump.  He was upset when he saw reports on CNN comparing his smaller crowd with the one at the Inauguration of President Obama in 2009. He was so incensed that he sent his newly-minted spokesman out to argue with the Press Corps about it. This was widely seen as a huge disaster, since it was done in such haste and with such lack of preparation, and was ultimately a losing argument anyway.

That has been a pattern throughout the week: Trump reacts to what he sees on television. Perhaps the most striking example was this:

Bottom line: Trump watches the news, and responds to what he sees. This is interesting because it inadvertently makes Fox News and CNN way more powerful than they already were, since they are clearly influencing the opinions of the most powerful man in the world.

If I were an executive at either network, I’d be delighted by this. It means that their reports now carry unprecedented weight. This could be used to shape the President’s agenda in a variety of ways.

2. Stephen Bannon is the driving force behind the administration’s actions.

Not really a surprise, but good to have it confirmed.  Bannon’s hand was obvious in Trump’s inaugural address, and all subsequent actions have conformed to Bannon’s pro-nationalist, anti-globalist philosophy.

Clearly, Bannon is the main guy Trump listens to.  What is not yet clear is whether Trump’s other advisors are ok with this, or if they are disagreeing with Bannon and being overruled. I suspect, based on the leaks that have occurred so far, that at least some of them are not satisfied with this state of affairs.

There appear to be two distinct lines of command that go as follows:


Note which one of these branches is tasked with crafting substantive action, and which one was used for a pointless and unwinnable argument with the press.

These are two errors people make in all types of organizations.  They seem to be complete opposites, but in fact they stem from the same failure in logic.

“The Competition Is Doing It”: People in business, sports, politics etc. will often say this to justify doing something.  “We need to spend the big bucks on this.” “Why?” “Because the competitors spent big bucks on it–we don’t want to be left behind.”

The problem is, this makes you susceptible to fads and fashions.  If the other guys are doing it and it’s actually a bad idea, then you are copying their mistakes. It’s an advanced form of peer-pressure. People who don’t know what they are doing will just copy other people on the assumption they do.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see what the competition is doing–of course you should–but rather that the fact that they are doing something is not in itself a reason to copy them.  Only if it’s working for them is it a reason to copy them.

Of course, people sometimes make the complete opposite mistake…

Not Invented Here Syndrome“: This is where people are too concerned about keeping their own insular culture, and refuse to adopt new ideas. A variant is “we’ve always done it that way” as a justification for something.  People are too afraid to try something new and justify it by saying its not “who we are” or “how we do it”.

Now, on the surface, these errors are in complete opposite directions.  One is about taking ideas from the outside, the other is about refusing to do so.  But the common theme in both is that people are unwilling to do something no one else is doing. They are afraid of the risks involved with trying something no one else has tried.

So, how to avoid making either of these errors?  It seems like a delicate balancing act, where if you try too hard to avoid one, you end up making the other one.

The answer is to focus on what actually works. That way, when someone says, “The competitors are doing it”, you can say, “And is it working for them?” And when someone says, “We’ve always done it that way”, you can say, “And has it worked for us?”

The truth is, many screw-ups occur because someone was afraid to do the thing that they knew would work, either because no one else was doing it, or because they themselves had never done it.


The big story of the day is that the Obama administration has been using executive power to act unilaterally without the approval of Congress. It’s based on this New York Times story by Charlie Savage:

As a senator and presidential candidate, [Obama] had criticized George W. Bush for  flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.

But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress.

The first several paragraphs of the article all portray Obama as making something of a reversal; of now doing what he accused Bush of doing. Eventually, in the ninth paragraph, we get the details:

[F]or the most part, Mr. Obama’s increased unilateralism in domestic policy has relied on a different form of executive power than the sort that had led to heated debates during his predecessor’s administration: Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion of a right to override statutes on matters like surveillance and torture.

“Obama’s not saying he has the right to defy a Congressional statute,” said Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor. “But if the legislative path is blocked and he otherwise has the legal authority to issue an executive order on an issue, they are clearly much more willing to do that now than two years ago.”

That’s sort of a major difference. It’s one thing to use the Executive’s legally-granted powers aggressively, it’s another to go around the laws of the Legislative branch–“through the dark side”, as the fellow once said. But that’s not really the impression the casual reader, or the reader of headlines, is likely to get.

 I leave it to others to be witty about this. For now, I’ll just say that I’d like it if he would explain why the hell he didn’t get Donald Rumsfeld out right after the Abu Ghraib scandal. If you want my opinion, that is the single most disastrous decision of his administration.

Any questions you’d like to hear him answer? (But know that he won’t.)