Saturday, September 27, 2008

The War with al Qaeda

On September 11, 2001 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, severely damaged the Pentagon and killed almost 3,000 Americans. In the seven years since, we have waged war on al Qaeda, yet they still control territory, run training camps, launch attacks, communicate with their followers, and have even developed a large international network. We failed to destroy al Qaeda and their Taliban allies because President Bush failed to focus America's power on the task, and, IMHO, because Americans generally, including John McCain, do not understand the conflict very well (1). In particular:
  • al Qaeda's primary weapon is the suicide bomber. Suicide bombers are hard to stop, but also hard to recruit as motivation must be very high.
  • The primary motivator for al Qaeda suicide bombers is the presence of mostly Christian American soldiers on Muslim land (2). The suicide bombers believe al Qaeda's claim that America is waging war on Islam and they must defend their religion.
  • al Qaeda's strategy for victory is to goad America with suicide attacks into over-reacting (3). This has been fabulously successful with America getting into fights with third parties like Iraq, and spending ourselves into bankruptcy.
  • The invasion of Iraq was a great gift to al Qaeda. It helps recruit suicide bombers and drives America into debt as taxes were not raised to pay for it.
  • The current economic crisis has the potential to hand al Qaeda victory. If the American economy tanks there will be no money for our vast overseas military deployment forcing an abrupt, disastrous withdrawal.

    What to Do

    First, our long term strategy must be to withdraw all American troops from Muslim lands. We are so deeply embedded that this will take quite some time. Also, al Qaeda and the Taliban must be destroyed, and this will require American soldiers in Afghanistan. However, simply announcing our intention to withdraw, along with a few near-term concrete steps, will remove most of the motivation and make recruiting suicide bombers extremely difficult. Why kill yourself for something that will happen anyway?

    Of course, there is a reason we have a massive military presence in the Persian Gulf (4). To understand why, ask yourself the following question: If the Persian Gulf had not a single drop of oil, how many American soldiers would be in the region? Answer: a few embassy guards, maybe. To withdraw we must eliminate, or at least severely limit, our use of oil. In the short term only conservation, basically driving less, can have much effect. In the medium term we can develop electric and hybrid plug-in cars and run them on ground solar and wind energy (5). In the long term we can completely solve our energy problems with Space Solar Power, which can deliver massive quantities of extremely clean energy to Earth for the next few billion years.

    Second, we must get out of debt. The bankruptcy al Qaeda seeks for us will be caused by excessive debt. Consider that the federal government owes $10 trillion, we have $12 trillion in mortgages, $1 trillion in credit card debt, and there's auto loans, city debt, state debt, commercial debt, etc. One observer calculates the total American debt today at $53 trillion -- $175,000 for every man woman and child, and growing rapidly (6). We will either reverse this trend soon or al Qaeda will win; America will go bankrupt. So spend less than you earn, get rid of your credit cards, pay off your debts, and insist that politicians cut spending and raise taxes. We must move back from this cliff or fall off.

    Third, Americans, including the elite, are woefully ignorant of the Islamic world (7). For example, the CIA suffers from a horrendous shortage of translators and none of Bush's top advisors speak Arabic. This is unfortunate as the third leg of victory is knowledge. Some sage once said 'Know thy enemy' and few truer words have been spoken. Study the islamic world, if possible learn one of the key languages then visit their web sites, get involved in the discussions, if possible visit and talk to people in person. We can only win when the suicide bombers stop volunteering, and that will only happen with overwhelming rejection of al Qaeda within the Muslim world. The government, by itself, cannot create the necessary support; but there are 300 million Americans. We can forge millions of links to the Islamic world. That's the last bit we need.

    Victory cannot come from going shopping, as Bush famously told us to do after 9/11. Victory requires hard work and sacrifice, not just by the soldiers but by everyone. Get to work.


    (1) In this discussion I assume that the purpose of our military is to defend America against attack, not run the world. If what you really want is a global empire, a much different approach is needed.

    (2) This is what McCain doesn't understand, as evidenced by his remarks about staying in Iraq for 100 years. As long as American soldiers stand on Muslim land there will be suicide bombers attacking the U.S.

    (3) The US military's counter insurgency manual notes that sometimes one should not react to insurgent attacks. Many such attacks are not designed to do damage so much as to prompt an over-reaction that kills innocents and generates hatred of the U.S.

    (4) We not only have well over a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq, we have major military bases throughout the Persian Gulf, special forces in Iran (reportedly), trainers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and a major naval presence in nearby waters.

    (5) Nuclear plants are just al Qaeda targets, and nuclear fuel and waste make great dirty bombs. Oil, natural gas and coal could help, but they will run out fairly quickly. Furthermore, taking carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere worsens global warming. Solar and wind are good for the lifetime of the Earth and are so spread out that they are very difficult for terrorists, or even enemy nations, to seriously damage.

    (6) The median family income in the U.S. is about $50,000/year, hardly enough to pay off that $175,000 per person anytime soon.

    (7) It should be noted that the Islamic world is, if anything, even more ignorant of America and the West.

  • Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Are Republicans Really Socialist?

    In times of crisis you often discover what people really believe, which is sometimes not what they've been saying in good times. For example, for decades the Republicans have been telling us they believe in small government and definitely not in socialism. Socialism means the government owns large pieces of the economy and that, the Republicans told us, was a no no.

    Then came the current financial crisis in which the Republican administration:

  • Took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, giving the federal government ownership of over $5 trillion in mortgages. [reference]
  • Took an 80% stake in AGI, a trillion dollar insurance company. [reference]
  • Proposes buying $700 billion on mortgage and other securities from the private sector. [reference]

    Taken together, in the past few weeks this Republican administration has moved to take over roughly $7 trillion worth of the private sector. It turns out, the Republicans are really Socialists.

    Who knew?

  • Saturday, September 20, 2008

    Fighter Pilot or Commander in Chief?

    In combat, a fighter pilot must make split-second life-and-death decisions. It's often better to make the wrong decision fast than the right one slowly. The commander-in-chief, by contrast, almost always has plenty of time to make decisions, at least a day or two and often months. However, bad decisions don't mean disaster for one man, they mean disaster for the whole nation.

    John McCain was a fighter pilot (1) and appears to make his decisions like a fighter pilot. When faced with the current financial crisis, one day he said the economy was 'fundamentally sound,' the next day said he'd fire the head of the SEC (2), he then railed against greed on Wall Street and called for a taxpayer supported entity to take over bad debt. McCain also abandoned his Republican decades-old commitment to deregulation. McCain is twisting and turning like a fighter pilot evading a missile; but with one difference, Bush actually controls the plane and McCain is getting in the way.

    Obama typically makes decisions by gathering the relevant facts, consulting with top-notch people who disagree with him, thinking things through, and choosing a course of action consistent with his core beliefs and principles. For example, Obama responded to the financial crisis by noting that this is the logical consequence of Republican economic philosophy (3), taking some time to think through the issues, meeting with men like Warren Buffet, and postponing publicizing his plans to avoid causing problems for the Bush administration who, however unfortunately, are actually in control and make the decisions until January. The whole time, Obama stayed consistent with the major principles he enunciated in major economic speeches he gave months ago.

    Which approach do you think will work best for a commander-in-chief?


    (1) Although apparently not a very good one. He lost three aircraft in peacetime accidents, one in a wartime accident, and one in combat.

    (2) Interestingly, although the President appoints the head of the SEC, the President cannot fire him as the SEC is an independent agency.

    (3) Get the government out of the way and let the markets do their thing.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    Lying His Way to the White House

    John McCain, like Bush before him, is trying to lie (1) his way into the White House with attack ads. Sleazy attack ads can win elections, but they don't help you govern worth a damn as we have seen from the last eight disastrous years. If McCain wins, every four years we'll see another set of nasty lies followed by crummy government.

    The only way to stop this is for Obama to win. Obama sticks much closer to the truth, is infinitely less nasty, and IMHO will govern much better. You can do three things:

  • Email, call and talk to your friends
  • Donate money at
  • Vote


    (1) I will limit myself to one example. McCain is fond of saying Obama will raise your taxes. The truth is that Obama will cut taxes for 80% of Americans, and raise them for about 1%. Futhermore, for the 60% of households that make less than $70,000/year, Obama offers tax cuts 3-25 times larger than McCain (e.g., $567 vs $19 for those under $19,000/year). See for details.

  • Friday, September 12, 2008

    Cost of 'the Surge'

    To pull us out of a major tailspin in Iraq we sent our best counter-insurgency general and an extra five brigades. We did not send these to Afghanistan and, as a direct result, the people who actually attacked us are doing quite well. Violence is up, the Taliban operate in broad daylight an hour from Kabul, American generals are begging for more troops and warning it will soon be too late. There is a real possibility the Taliban will take over nuclear armed Pakistan. That's the cost of 'the Surge.'

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Bush Adopts Obama Policies

    The Republicans have painted Obama as inexperienced in foreign and national security affairs and have ridiculed many of his ideas. However, the current Republican administration seems to be systematically adopting Obama's proposals. Specifically,
  • Obama said he would attack inside of Pakistan, if necessary without Pakistani permission, if there were actionable intelligence on bin Laden or top Taliban officials. Republicans claimed this showed Obama was irresponsible. The U.S. military recently conducted just such an attack
  • Obama has proposed direct talks with Iran. The Republicans decried this as legitimizing Iran's leadership. The administration then sent a U.S. diplomat with the Europeans on a recent round of talks with Iran [reference].
  • Obama has long called for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Republicans have attacked this savagely. The current administration has accepted and is currently negotiating the details of a 'time horizon' (aka timetable) for withdrawing American troops from Iraq [reference].
  • Obama has pushed to redirect resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, where those that attacked us are fighting. Bush just announced that he will remove about 8,000 U.S. soldiers from Iraq and send 4,500 to Afghanistan [reference].

    If Obama is such a neophyte, why are Republicans adopting so many of his ideas?

  • Friday, September 5, 2008

    A Solution to the Launch Problem? Maybe.

    If you want to really blow the doors off space development, read on. This might be it.

    Transportation from Earth to orbit, space launch, is extremely expensive ($2K - 20K per kg) and dangerous (a few percent failure rate). This is what makes everything we do in space so ridiculously expensive. The fundamental reason for this difficulty is the extremely high temperatures, large forces, and fast decision making required to ride a tower of flame to orbital velocity (~28,000 km/hr).

    Floating to Space by experimentalist John Powell lays out a solution that just might work; at a tiny fraction of the cost of alternatives. The basic idea is to use three types of lighter-than-air ships. The first travels from Earth to about 120,000 feet. Research balloons do this all the time, no problem. The second lives permanently at about 120,000 feet. Research balloons have stayed this high for long periods of time, but permanence requires on-site maintenance and Powell seems to understand more-or-less how to do this. More important, he has demonstrated some of the key capabilities in ground test. The last vehicle is a km-scale, inflatable, hypersonic flying wing that uses electric thrusters to achieve orbital velocity over a period of days. This is the hard part.

    I don't know how to figure out if this works, but I intend to learn. It might be easier than many a launcher development we have already achieved. The key is that the atmosphere doesn't end at 100 km, it extends much further although it is very diffuse. The vehicle's enormous size allows aerodynamic forces generated by a diffuse atmosphere to provide lift. This lift allows very slow acceleration into orbit. Slow acceleration allows use of extremely efficient electric propulsion. Deorbit is relatively easy - pitch the vehicle up to expose its enormous cross section to atmospheric forces. This will decelerate the vehicle enough in a diffuse atmosphere that reentry heating is minor. The orbital vehicle then docks with the station at about 120,000 ft. Unlike today's rockets, there are no high temperatures, no enormous forces, and time is measured in hours not milliseconds. This just might be relatively easy to do. Maybe.

    Powell's book is written for the lay public. Although he lays out the approach and the known problems, there is not enough detail to make a technical evaluation. The good news is that Powell is very open about his failures as well as his successes. He meticulously describes the dozens of balloon launches JP Aerospace, his company, has attempted with an entertaining description of the many accidents and problems. In addition, there is an entire section of the book devoted to the challenges that must be overcome. To my mind the most difficult and critical is reducing the orbital vehicle's drag -- or perhaps providing more thrust. Current materials, vehicle designs, and engines are insufficient.

    America is spending nearly a billion dollars per shuttle flight. Flights after 2010, if funded, will cost two billion dollars apiece. For a fraction of one shuttle launch we could find out if Powell's vision will work. If it does, for far less than NASA's new launcher, we might well drop the cost of launch by a factor or 10 or more. Maybe much more. This would allow space solar power, lunar and martian bases, space settlement, asteroid mining and a thousand other applications to bloom. The wealth, power, and knowledge to be gained are immense.

    If Powell is close to right, we need to do this. Now.