Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Part II

Consider, if you will, the implications of the following two stories:

Why India's Mars mission is so cheap - and thrilling

First U.S. Stealth Jet Attack on Syria Cost More Than Indian Mission to Mars


I'm a big fan of Obama's "Don't do stupid stuff" foreign policy.  Its the same principle you find in medicine - "First, do no harm" - and it applies to pretty much any attempt to develop solutions to problems.  When it comes to relationships with other countries and regions, you really ought to avoid doing something stupid.

What counts as stupid?  Why, killing civilians with flying robots accidentally or on purpose, or violently bursting into people's homes and hooding and arresting them for inconsistent or inaccurate or made-up or unjust reasons, or torturing people in prison for months and years on end on the basis of thin suspicions and paranoia.  Those would be three examples of stupid things Obama's predecessor's VP allowed or excused, and that Obama permitted to continue - although I sincerely believe he wanted to stop them.  

Now I know some will say Obama's policy is not a coherent, principled foreign policy, that much more is needed.  Today his former head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense appears to be arguing that sometimes its best to charge right in before you've got all the facts and bust some heads, a policy that has Dunning-Kruger syndrome written all over it.  But in the same way that if a group of doctors told you that they thought you needed months of expensive chemotherapy and surgery that would require a full twelve hours of downtime and the reorientation of multiple organs to deal with your headache and sniffly nose, you might think "well first do no harm," a foreign policy that doesn't begin with the admonition not to shoot yourself in the foot strategically is really a nonstarter.  It can still involve the use and expenditure of vast quantities of money and explosives, if that's what you're ultimately looking for, if that's your real purpose, but the net result will be more adult and causally connected to your aims.

But in the case of ISIS Obama has little political choice - he has to make a big show of attacking the largest threat to the Middle East since Zarqawi was killed way back in Ought-Six.  That airstrikes do little to "degrade" the command and control of loose-knit guerrilla or really any kind of armies was amply demonstrated by all sides in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia, to name just a few popular recent wars, although there is some evidence that airstrikes at a volume that approached the tail-end of WWII will have some impact on heavy manufacturing (like tanks and howitzers) and make the populace hate you.  Ultimately the only way to actually degrade ISIS is to send troops to occupy the ground ISIS currently inhabits and to blow up all their stuff and kill anyone who wears a badge that says "Hi I'm with ISIS," and that works so rarely and requires such an enormous level of forbearance and intelligence on the part of the leadership and the soldiers that Americans have only successfully done it once in their entire 200-plus years of occupying foreign territory, and that was after they dropped atomic bombs on the populace and destroyed 80% of their cities with firebombs.

From an engineering standpoint, either proposal fails the sustainable-solution test.

And so now, old news by now: just one armed incursion into the affairs of the middle east cost more than sending a flying robot to Mars.  Not a sustained campaign mind you, just the moving of pieces about on the Risk board so you can assuage the anxieties of the bed-wetters in Congress and their outraged co-dependents in the morning media.  You could view this as a positive thing: The extensive use of flying robots to kill with pinpoint accuracy alleged bad guys attending weddings in the Swat Valley - which otherwise looks like a stunning place to do some camping - has enabled economies of scale and technology in the production of flying robots that now makes it also possible to cheaply fly those robots all the way to Mars.  Perhaps the same thing will result from the mass deployment of fighter jets, and in twenty years we'll look back at the deployment costs of the F-22, despite the plane's ability to kill pilots without firing a shot, as the price we all had to pay to put up some kind of defense against aliens.

Or it could be, once again, that we have it backwards: The outsized dividends paid by the human Space program overwhelmingly go into the pockets of the warloving 1%.  Its not the scale of flying robot deployments that made the Indian Mars mission possible, its the Indian Mars mission that results in flying robots of death.

The rest of us get genuinely intriguing pictures, an understanding of the beauty of the rest of the Universe, and the satisfaction of knowing the species is actually better than answering beheadings with bombings.   

But it'd be nice if it was reinvested in something worthwhile.

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