Bob Schwartz

Category: Syria

Islamic State: Using Arithmetic to Solve Complex Equations

Riemann - Zeta Function

We are not playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East—partly because all of us will go crazy if we hear that clichéd term one more time.

Instead, we are using arithmetic to solve very complex equations.

The Clay Mathematics Institute offers the famous Millennium Prizes, $1,000,000 each for solving their current list of unsolved mathematical problems.

Here is description of the Riemann Hypothesis (a manuscript by Riemann of the Zeta function is pictured above):

Some numbers have the special property that they cannot be expressed as the product of two smaller numbers, e.g., 2, 3, 5, 7, etc. Such numbers are called prime numbers, and they play an important role, both in pure mathematics and its applications.

The distribution of such prime numbers among all natural numbers does not follow any regular pattern. However, the German mathematician G.F.B. Riemann (1826 – 1866) observed that the frequency of prime numbers is very closely related to the behavior of an elaborate function

ζ(s) = 1 + 1/2s + 1/3s + 1/4s + …

called the Riemann Zeta function. The Riemann hypothesis asserts that all interesting solutions of the equation

ζ(s) = 0

lie on a certain vertical straight line.

This has been checked for the first 10,000,000,000 solutions. A proof that it is true for every interesting solution would shed light on many of the mysteries surrounding the distribution of prime numbers.

Right now, in the early days of the campaign against the Islamic State, we are using arithmetic that goes something like this:

1 (U.S.) + x (number of participating nations with wildly different involvement and interests) – IS = conditional victory

The truth is much closer to complex mathematics, as complex as any we may have ever seen on the world stage. There are probably behind-the-scenes discussions that are more subtle, but here in the public we are somehow not supposed to bother our heads about that. The question of why we publicly don’t deal with it this way may be because our leaders can’t handle the truth or because they believe citizen/voters can’t handle the truth or, because of politics and wanting to be seen as doing something, a little of both.

Solving the problem is worth much more than a million dollars. But solving it will take more than simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. There was a time when the world was like that, susceptible to those simple solutions. But those days and that world are gone. Our leaders don’t have to be able to attempt a solution to the Riemann Hypothesis. But they do have to recognize when grade school, old school strategies—when simple arithmetic—will no longer work.

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

John Kerry: A Teeny, Tiny, Unbelievably Small Strike

Cruise Missile
Secretary of State John Kerry says the strike against Syria would be “unbelievably small” (“teeny, tiny” is inferred).

The job of Secretary of State is unbelievably big. More than just the nation’s chief diplomat, the secretary is in the line of presidential succession, following the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President Pro Tem of the Senate. Six American Presidents have served in the office, along with two of the most famous Chief Justices—John Jay and John Marshall—and an army of legendary figures, including Daniel Webster twice.

Throughout the Syria crisis so far, John Kerry has had some trouble when he speaks. His appearance before Congressional committees has been widely viewed as underwhelming. His comparing Assad to Hitler, talking about a “Munich moment,” was mostly ignored. And now he is trying to minimize attacking targets in Syria as “unbelievably small.” It isn’t clear that this is a diplomatic term of art. Hopefully, it is not a military term of art. If it is artful anywhere, it might find its place in a casual conversation between friends.

John Kerry has already been getting a pass from the media on past statements, no doubt out of respect for his no longer being a politician. So what he might have said as a Senator and presidential candidate may be out of bounds. Such as

“If you don’t believe…Saddam Hussein is a threat with nuclear weapons, then you shouldn’t vote for me.” February 11, 2003

The real dilemma is how to downplay the nature of the strike while maximizing its claimed ability to achieve either the stated aim to deter further chemical warfare or, as some would like it, to change the balance of power in the civil war. This is less like squaring the circle and more like rounding the tesseract (a four-dimensional cube).

Whatever the rhetorical trick that is being tried, it is not working. Or at least talking about a teeny, tiny, unbelievably small strike isn’t.

“Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces”


This headline— Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces—is from a New York Times story yesterday. It has not been as widely reported as it should. And it should, because it might make some people more uneasy than they already are.

The story begins:

President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.

The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday….

Obviously we are not going to blow up stockpiles of chemical weapons, even assuming we know where they are. But this news puts the question in starker relief. If our goal is to both punish Assad and to reduce the possibility of his using chemical weapons again, we are not going to do that by taking them out of his hands. But if not that way, then how? And the answer from this report is that we intend to weaken his ability to make war more generally—because the people and equipment that make chemical warfare possible are the same ones that make the overall bloody war on his people possible. And at that point, intentionally or incidentally, we have generally intervened in the conflict, no matter how limited the basis.

And that, as this news report helps clarify, is what is bothering members of Congress, members of the military and a lot of Americans.