Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Curious Hybrid of Mumbai

The attacks in Mumbai have been over for some twenty-four hours. Indian authorities have re-established order but we don’t yet know who perpetrated the attacks or why. And there is a disconcerting feeling that these attacks were different; they were somehow apart from the norm of modern terrorism. There is a curious sense that these attacks were a hybrid – but why? And is this feeling an accurate assessment?

One reason for this sense is that the domestic media here in the US – by which I mean CNN – has been repeating the notion that these were different for the duration of the attacks. Rumors that the attackers singled out Westerners colored the coverage.

Another reason for this sense of differentiation is that the rhetoric of the last seven years have hammered into us the wrongheaded notions that terrorism is an ideology (it is not); and terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims can all be lumped together – Islamic Terrorists – and that those acts are necessary different than terrorist acts perpetrated by westerners.

But these reasons do not sufficiently explain the nagging sense that the Mumbai Attacks are different. First let us describe what we do know: (1) ten or (likely) more terrorists of-at this time-unknown nationality and religion (2) attacked 6 sites in Mumbai (3) using AK-series rifles, grenades and plastic explosive; (4) 10 of these men were carried into Mumbai by a zodiac-like craft; (5) at three sites the attackers took hostages, secured and defended the positions from security forces; (6) no known demands were made; (7) no credible claim of responsibility has been made; (8) one denial, by Lashkar-e-Taibi, has been issued. From these facts we can infer that the attack was well planned and highly organized, the attackers appear to have been well trained and have had good intelligence on the sites attacked – this attack was resource intensive.
Terrorism is a class of tactics used by many types of groups pursuing many different ends. Often it is used by groups engaged in struggles for ‘national liberation’. The specific tactics used by these groups have divided fairly neatly into two distinct groups: those designed to focus attention on the struggle – macabre theatre; and those designed to make an ‘occupation’ too costly to maintain by inflicting significant casualties on the occupier by attacking hard and soft targets. Sometimes a particular attack is used as leverage for some other end: taking hostages and demanding the release of political prisoners, for instance.

Part of what makes the attacks in Mumbai so unnerving is that they don’t appear to fit neatly into either group of tactics. While the duration of the attacks and media response fit the profile of macabre theatre, the real damage and casualties inflicted push the bounds of this definition (historically). More importantly, no warning was issued, no credible claim of responsibility has been made, and nothing was demanded – all are trademarks of attacks designed to spotlight a struggle.

Similarly, while the attacks caused terrible casualties, the terrorists inexplicably released hostages. Again, no claim of responsibility was issued – simply inflicting great damage without attribution does not advance the ‘cause’, whatever the ‘cause’ may be.

The most curious aspects of the attacks are that the terrorists attacked, held and defended fixed positions, and that the terrorists issued no claim or demands. A few modern examples of terrorists attacking and holding fixed positions have been perpetrated by Chechens: the take over of the Beslan school and the attack on the Moscow Theatre. Both of these attacks were against fixed positions and involved the taking of hostages. However, in both of these attacks, the terrorists issued specific demands.

To some extent this analysis assumes perfect execution on the part of the attackers. It may be that despite the apparent effectiveness with which the attacker took over the Taj and Oberoi, the operation was botched. It could be that the goal was to kill many more westerners than were actually killed and the enormous number of Indians killed was accidental. It could also be that the attack was disrupted by Indian security forces – perhaps, it will be revealed that the terrorist were attempting to plant explosives in the Taj and Oberoi and the release of hostages and defense of the buildings were attempts to delay security forces until the buildings could be destroyed, live on television. If this is the case then the comparatively superficial attacks elsewhere in Mumbai may be explainable as diversionary attacks. It is unlikely, however, given the duration the terrorists controlled the buildings that they were unable to plant explosives.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Oil Prediction (because that's a smart thing to do)

Bald face prediction: so long as Brent Crude is valued below Light Crude on NYMEX, oil will continue to trend down.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A MASH note from Hitchens to Sen. Clinton

Christopher Hitchens writes in Slate an article attacking the notion of Sen. Clinton becoming Secretary of State. He simultaneously reminds most of the world why they despise him, but might want to get drunk with the famous imbiber. Hitchens is a good writer-an entertaining and passionate scribe-but he is, above all, intellectually dishonest. He allows his personal biases, of which there are many, to color his thinking to the point of producing utter nonsense. His disdain-it may not be too much to call it hatred-for the Clintons leads him to write: “In matters of foreign policy, it has been proved time and again, the Clintons are devoted to no interest other than their own” – a statement so false its very utterance is an obscenity to truth, in an article rife with accusation by innuendo, most of which has patently nothing to do with whether or not Sen. Clinton would make a good Secretary of State.

It is too bad. Well, Hitch, I’d still like to have a drink with you, maybe at the next Vanity Fair party you throw in Adams Morgan, but lay off the rye before you hack out another piece on Sen. Clinton – she’d make a fine Secretary of State and her commitment to both human rights and the interests of the United States is beyond question.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Life imitating Art

Incoming Freshman Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut) is taking a page from the West Wing. Rep. Chaffetz, much like the Junior Representative from Arkansas in West Wing episode “A Good Day,” will be living on a cot in his office.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A little Crude ...

Back on July 6, Atrios wrote that he didn’t expect to see oil drop below $100/bbl again. At the time it struck me as a pretty bold-and to my mind unfounded-statement. He made that prediction as oil peaked and has since dropped steadily save one bump in September (see chart below). It has been below $100/bl for as long as it remained above $100/bbl after his prediction.

In fairness, I didn’t think oil would drop below the $70-75/bbl price range and thought the natural price was probably in the $60-70/bbl range. So, its current price below $50/bbl is surprising to me. I don’t think that the current price is stable and I imagine oil will rebound strongly in the near term (6 months – 1 year) and begin to oscillate. This may not be optimal, but, as my physics friends remind me, sinusoidal oscillations are a steady-state solution.

(data from EIA, daily light sweet crude settlement on NYMEX in $/bbl)

To Russia with Love

Kristof wrote yesterday in the New York Times about Russia, Georgia and how Obama’s administration should approach the Caucasus. He thinks allowing Georgia into NATO is a bad idea, says we need a new approach to Russia to avoid a new Cold War.
Russia is flexing its muscles. That is beyond debate. A New Cold War, though? I’m not convinced. Moreover, I think analogizing our current relationship with Russia and the Cold War US-Soviet relationship is uninformative and likely obscures more than it enlightens. Much like the penchant for comparing negotiations to Munich, the Cold War comparison can lead to wrong impressions.

It is important for the United States to recognize that, regardless of what NATO countries may say about the eastward expansion of NATO, Russia views it as a threat. Not only has the expansion represented a weakening of Russia’s influence over its near-abroad-essentially Russia’s defensive buffer between Moscow and the rest of the world-but these states have, in Russia’s view, been turning away from Moscow and towards an organization that for fifty years was dedicated to defeating Russia. This is a difficult concept for those of us in the west, who viewed NATO as a benign entity, defending Europe and the World from the Soviet Empire. Nevertheless, Russia’s strongly negative reaction to NATO expansion is no way irrational and is eminently predictable.

The emerging difficulty for the United States and Europe is how to reconcile Russia’s legitimate security concerns, Russia’s apparent desire to project power-regionally, at least-and the strategic importance of the Caucasus. The governing principles for dealing with Russia, moving forward, should be based in Real Politik: 1) Russia’s assertiveness has increased as its revenues have increased and relative hard power has grown while the United States’ has diminished; 2) Russia has a long standing interest in dominating the Caucasus; the significance of the Caucasus to energy for both natural gas/oil extraction as well as pipeline transit has only exacerbated Russia’s interest in dominating the region; 3) re-read Kennan; drawing lines in the sand rhetorically and not backing them up will only encourage Russian aggression – also, take very seriously Russian statements about red lines, they tend to adhere to them.

The United States and Europe should not conflate power politics with the Cold War. Competition for resources and influence should not be an existential struggle. Injecting sensationalized rhetoric is the absolute wrong prescription for the United States. What the US needs now is cold, rational analysis about the state of the world as it is.