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Seydlitz89: “The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy”

April 23rd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Our Clausewitzian friend, Seydlitz89 commented on my recent post on politics and strategy and has a new one of his own that accurately frames a solution to the geopolitical disarray in which the United States finds itself today. Seydlitz89 asked for my comments so I will be making some where appropriate [ in regular text]:

The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy

by Seydlitz89

 

There are various definitions of strategy. Basically what I mean here is expressed by a simplified example from Homer. The ten unsuccessful years of the Greek seige of Troy was carried out by force driven by notions of being led by heros/exceptionalism resulting in failure. Compare that to the subsequent Trojan Horse strategy which is far more than a simple ruse. The Greeks are able to turn the Trojan’s own belief system/narrative against them, and the horse is taken into the city to strategic effect. Had the Greeks been able to conquer Troy with force and notions of exceptionalism alone, then strategy would have been unnecessary, but since they were not, strategy became a necessity.

This particular symbolism chosen by Seydlitz89, of Achilles vs. Odysseus representing antipodes in strategy – of brute power vs. metis – were themes in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies and Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and the question of relying more on force or stratagem echoes in many contexts of military history and diplomacy. The “heroic” comment is particularly interesting to me. Homer’s Greeks in the archaic period  lived in aristocratic societies that had replaced the petty monarchies of the Greek Dark Ages in which The Illiad was set, but predated the Greeks of the polis of classical antiquity with which most people are more familiar.  The highest value of the the archaic Greek aristocracy (and for many classical Greeks as well) was “Arete” – an epitome of excellence in spirit and action, a virtuous nobility of character.

The Trojan Horse is a turning point for the Greeks, as Seydlitz correctly notes.  While all the major leaders of the Greeks in The Illiad are presumed to have arete, the stress on individual action, like the unstoppable battle-madness of Achilles outside Troy, makes unified action difficult and gives rise to bitter quarrels over place and spoils. Adopting the strategy of the Trojan Horse legitimizes collective action in light of arete; this shift in the direction of metis and strategy morally reinforced the iron discipline required for the phalanx, which became common Greek military practice in the century or two after Homer. So much so that while classical Greeks  marveled at the prowess of the legendary Achilles, the death of Aristodemus at Plataea received a far more grudging recognition from the Spartans. Strategy trumped heroics in terms of arete.

Lets consider strategy as a complex concept of at least three distinct aspects: the first is political context and contingency; the second is dialogue supported by a coherent strategic narrative; and the third is the combined application of various sources of power to achieve an effect greater than the sum of those sources, that is strategic effect. If we combine these three aspects we can conceptualize a test of opposing wills interacting over time applying various moral and material resources within a specific political context. The environment they operate in is one of uncertainty, violence and danger adding to the friction of the entire sequence. The goal is imposing one’s will over that of the enemy, but for the whole complex interaction to be coherent, certain criteria have to be met. Is the political purpose attainable by military means? Are other forms of power more appropriate? Is the purpose worth the possible cost? Who is the enemy exactly? A modern state? A tribe? An ideology?

A good riff here.

If you don’t care to take the time to understand the context in which you propose to operate, if you are unwilling to make rational choices about allocating your sources of power, if you are unwilling to acknowledge who (or what) constitutes “the enemy”, then your strategic narrative will be incoherent, unpersuasive and your effects anything but strategic (unless perhaps we count a debacle as being “strategic”).  Asking what the political purpose of military force  being used is for, much less the probability of success, seems to be the questions the Beltway prefers to ignore rather than answer.

Following Clausewitz, war belongs to political relations, so the enemy is by nature a political one, representing a political community. What is the nature of this political community, is it cohesive or fragmented to the point that it is the foreign presence which actually calls it into being? Dialogue is the interaction of both sides, but narrative includes all audiences involved including the home front, the enemy population and neutral political communities. One can see here how the moral and material cohesion of the two or more political communities influences the number of audiences we are dealing with.

Seydlitz here has written a paragraph to which Col. John Boyd would readily assent. The moral position your use of force communicates matters greatly to a variety of audiences, particularly if your actions contradict your words and your strategic narrative. Boyd argued for a grand strategy that would “Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted” , a task made impossible when marrying hypocrisy to cruelty while boasting of our own virtues. It is hard to lose a popularity contest with a ghoulish, beheading, paramilitary cult of sociopathic fanatics, or a brutal movement of unlettered zealot hillmen who throw acid in the faces of women, but at times the United States government managed to do exactly that. If the current and previous administrations had run WWII, we’d have had half the people of occupied Europe weighing their chances with the SS.

So based on our conceptual model, we can deduce that strategy requires a clear and specific political context, you cannot have a strategy to simply remain the only superpower on earth, or engage against methods such as terrorism or extremism. All of these are simply too abstract to be engaged in any way by strategy since the political contexts are too broad or nonexistent. How could the lone superpower prepare against any conceivable challenge from any rising political community, let alone engage a method of violence, strategically?

Declaring that we were in “The War on Terrorism” was the American elite’s way of finessing two aspects of the conflict they found most disturbing – the inconvenient reality that two American allies, Saudi Arabia and especially Pakistan, had done much to create the radical jihad movement from which our enemy had come and the elite’s own enormous political and psychological revulsion at grappling with the enemy’s sincere religious motivations and claim to defend Islam.  Not being willing to identify your enemy, even to yourself, will make discerning his center of gravity rather tough. Nor will anyone be impressed with demonstration of moral cowardice in fearing to do so.

Maintaining your strategic position relative to others?  This is more of a political task to emphasize the fundamentals, especially economic growth and moral confidence in the legitimacy of the model we present to the world, that make up the various aspects of national power of which military force is but one. A society that is ill-governed, corrupt and enduring social decay might be relatively more powerful than others (for a time) but it is unlikely to use its advantages effectively, much less wisely or decisively.

Re-discovering strategy allows us to look more critically at both our recent wars in terms of political context. What was the political purpose which we expected to achieve by especially military means in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems to have been to remake both the Afghan and Iraqi political identities, since only that would have assured the success of the new governments we wished to impose.

From this perspective, not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also more recent possible US military action regarding Syria, Iran or in support of the current Ukrainian government are all astrategic. None of them are coherent in any of the three aspects I have introduced

Complete agreement. The Bush administration based its claim to strategy on a narrow worldview of preemptive unilateralism, while the Obama administration has appointees who actively promote anti-strategic/astrategic models of national security decision making and disdain strategy altogether.

To illustrate this, let’s quickly consider Iraq. Iraq was initially portrayed as a looming threat. Operations commenced in 2002, although for some reason US and coalition air activity over Iraq was uniquely not considered military action. In the following spring, the country was quickly overrun, but the political purpose of imposing a new Iraqi political identity (as symbolized by the white, blue and yellow flag they were expected to adopt) was quite radical requirring sustained and extensive US moral and material support. An Iraqi resistance movement quickly spread with the US leadership caught by surprise. No strategy went into the planning of this campaign, instead it was based on a preference on organized violence linked with ideological assumptions regarding the market system as well as US exceptionalism.
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What we have experienced since 9/11 is not strategy, but the collapse of strategy as a coherent concept in US policy formulation producing a series of astrategic spasoms involving organized violence but to no US strategic effect. Instead we only have the aftereffects, the knock off of the corruption of these events contributing to a dissolution of US political standing in the world.

“Collapse” is an apt description.

Let us be clear that the supreme responsibility for this cognitive, cultural and moral collapse lies with the self-congratulatory, bipartisan elite, inside and out of the executive and legislative branches. They make policy that the military strives to carry out, they craft the strategic narrative or refuse to do so and they decide whether or not to focus on strategy and the exigencies of war or their ideological trivialities, they set the national moral example of careerism and brazen efforts to game the system for the personal enrichment of their relatives and cronies.

They are failing us and have been doing so for nearly a quarter-century.

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Ends and means of thumb

April 22nd, 2014

[by Lynn Rees]

Two useful rules of thumb for drawing a line between what is strategic and what is tactical:

While both strategy and tactics are used to simplify how to cope with the complex workings of politics, the Division of Power, there are key differences between which divisions of the Division of Power each can prudently simplify.

Tactics are closed simplifications: they can simplify how Divisions of Power can be used on other Divisions of Power where:

  • the make up of the Divisions of Powers involved is knowable
  • their use has a beginning and an end in time, space, and power that can be known and planned for with some accuracy

Primarily, but not exclusively, the first concerns means and the second concerns ends.

In contrast, strategy is an open simplification: it can simplify how a Division of Power is maintained by stringing or weaving tactics can together in a larger pattern despite the presence of other Divisions of Power but:

  • the make up of what Divisions of Power will be involved over an open-ended commitment of time, space, and power can never be known once and for all
  • no use of a Divisions of Power to grow and keep a Division of Power can have a concrete start or end to its usage, reach, or consumption

The first is mainly concerned with stocks while the second is mainly concerned with flows.

The Lord points out the possible dangers of ignoring these rules of thumb:

16 And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, beat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

Luke 12:16-20 (KJV)

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Gladwell on Waco and worldviews

April 21st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in hope that improved mutual understanding across a range of conflict situations will provide some viable alternatives to needlessly violent solutions ]
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Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article published in the New Yorker at the end of last month titled How not to negotiate with believers.

It’s on a topic I’ve been interested in for years, and it quotes several scholars whose work on the topic I know, whose books I read, in whose digital company I sometimes find myself as a researcher of new religious movements, apocalypticism and so on — and I’m happy to say that IMO Gladwell frames and summarizes the key issues very nicely.

You can read the whole piece on the New Yorker site, and I encourage you to do so. What I aim to do here is to extract the essence, and to suggest that similar considerations apply in greater or lesser measure to interactions with jihadists, members of the 969 movement in Myanmar, and others in one orm or another of religious conflict.

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Here’s the key graf:

Not long after the Waco siege began, James Tabor, the Biblical scholar, heard David Koresh on CNN talking about the Seven Seals. Tabor is an expert on Biblical apocalypticism and recognized the Branch Davidians for what they were—a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets. He contacted a fellow religious scholar, Phillip Arnold, and together they went to the F.B.I. “It became clear to me that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited,” Tabor writes, in an essay about his role in the Mount Carmel conflict. “I realized that in order to deal with David Koresh, and to have any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Waco situation, one would have to understand and make use of these biblical texts.”

Know your enemy, yes?

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There’s a particular exchange that Gladwell notes, between Koresh and law enforcement, which addresses the issue in terms of competing realities:

Even at the beginning of the siege, in the first call that Koresh made after the A.T.F. attack, the fundamental misunderstanding between those inside and those outside Mount Carmel was plain. Koresh telephoned Larry Lynch, in the local sheriff’s office, and — while the battle outside raged — insisted on talking about the Seven Seals:

KORESH: In the prophecies -—
LYNCH: All right.
KORESH: it says -—
LYNCH: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
KORESH: Sure.
LYNCH: All right, we can talk theology. But right now -—

What Lynch means is that right now there are dead and wounded bodies scattered across the Mount Carmel property and a gunfight is going on between federal agents and Koresh’s followers. For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense:

KORESH: No, this is life. This is life and death!
LYNCH: Okay.
KORESH: Theology -—
LYNCH: That’s what I’m talking about.
KORESH: is life and death.

Let me repeat that Gladwell comment:

For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense.

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To Koresh and those he spoke for, his emphasis, his sense of where the “real” reality lay made perfect sense — while the FBI dismissed his words as “Bible babble” since they held a substantially diferent view of reality.

If religion continues to be a major element in terrorism and perhaps other forms of conflict in what remains of this century, we would do well to learn the importance of listening to and addressing the worldview of our interlocutors.

And that goes for the Koreshes and other dissenters of the world, as well as to those who hold “the usual suspects assumptions”.

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Further reading:

  • James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?
  • Jayne Seminaire Docherty, Learning lessons from Waco

  • For an Al-Qaida equivalent, see my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style.

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    Easter celebrations 3: the Middle East

    April 21st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- third and last of three Easter posts ]
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    Voice of Russia reports:

    The Holy Fire has been descending in the Holy Sepulcher Church, in a small chapel called Kuvuklia, for more than one millennium. The famous Church Father St. Gregory of Nyssa is believed to be one of the first to mention the miracle back in the 4th century.

    The church service of the Holy Fire begins about 24 hours before the Orthodox Easter begins. This year it coincides with the Easter celebrations of other Christian confessions. Traditionally at 10-11 a.m. on Holy Saturday the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem clad in inner-rason brings a big icon lamp where the Holy Fire is expected to descend and 33 candles – the number of the years of Christ’s earthly life. After a series of rituals, the priest stops near the entrance to the chapel. His chasuble is taken off, and he is left wearing the linen chimer only for everyone to see that he is not taking any matches or other fire-making devices with him. The Patriarch goes inside, and the doors behind him are sealed with a big piece of wax and a red ribbon.
    Then light is switched off in the church and anticipatory silence follows as believers pray, confess their sins and ask God to grant them the Holy Fire. When the Holy Fire finally descends, then the doors of Kuvuklia open and the Patriarch comes out to bless the believers and gives them the fire.

    A group of pilgrims will deliver late on Saturday the Holy Fire from Jerusalem to the central Russian cathedral.

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    For the dismal wider Middle Eastern context, Phillip Smyth tweets:

    I usually wait for 2 times in a year when media remembers Mid East Christians exist: Easter and Christmas. Coverage today has been light. The stories which are run usually encompass 2 main themes: “They’re still there, but shrinking” or “Uncertainty for __ community”. In honor of the lack of Mid East Christian coverage (despite fact it’s Easter), I’ll go through some trends which impact communities.

  • Increased Iranian (via proxies & from Tehran) messaging to craft sense of minority (Shi’a) alliance with Christians.
  • Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has also pushed this “minority alliance” theme. Christians are viewed as group(s) to be utilized.
  • The Kurdish-Christian relationship has grown & changed depending on actors. #Syria/#PYD is the place to watch vis-a-vis cooperation.
  • Identity politics within Christian communities will continue to grow, create difficulties, and eventually settle a bit–just not now.
  • Lebanese Christians are ones to watch–Will certain communities (looking at Armenians/Syriacs) grow more involved in Syria?
  • My perception is sense of decline in influence for Christian groups is far more ‘palpable’ among those in upper-echelon poli circles that doesn’t mean those circles want that, but accepting that reality has been hard for many ideologues.
  • I expected there’d be a bit more “unity” btw Levant Christian groups & Copts. Not much change there. Albeit,expats a little different
  • Intra-Christian sectarian/ethnic identities will probably further a continuing state of disunity. Likely no fix to that.
  • BTW, since it’s Easter, I find it really unnerving & sick when AQ lovers who follow me, “favorite” material about Christians leaving M.E.

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    Phillip Smyth also points us to Suzannah George‘s NPR piece, ‘A Wound That Doesn’t Close’: Armenians Suffer Uncertainty Together:

    At St. Elie Armenian Catholic Church in downtown Beirut, Zarmig Hovsepian lit three candles and slowly mouthed silent prayers before Easter Mass. After reciting “Our Father,” she added a prayer of her own: “For peace, for Lebanon and the region,” she said, underscoring the deep sense of apprehension beneath the surface of otherwise festive Easter celebrations.

    Next door in Syria, violence recently displaced thousands from the historic Armenian town of Kessab, which rests in northwestern Syria, along the Turkish border. Groups of Syrian rebels, including some with ties to al-Qaida, swept into the Latakia province last month, seizing a number of towns in the strategically important mountains.

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    Hope and hatreds.

    Bringing our varied strands together we have the Economist, with a piece blog-friend Michael Robsinson pointed me to titled The fire every time:

    Water, soil, wind, the sun, salt… in religious language, all the primordial elements of human experience have taken on new layers of meaning, as prophets, preachers and scribes down the ages, inspired or otherwise, struggled to express their intimations of the divine. Often the same element (water, for example) has two or more opposing meanings, standing either for nurturing or for retribution. And so it is with fire.

    Over this weekend, more than a billion Christians round the world are proclaiming their belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; this happens to be one of the years when the Christian West and the Christian East (which use different computational systems) are marking their faith’s defining event on the same Sunday. And especially for Christians of the East, one of the defining symbols of Easter is fire — not the fire of retribution but the redeeming, death-conquering power of a God-man who, they believe, freely submitted to all the trials besetting humanity, including mortality, and overcame them.

    { … ]

    As in all recent years, the flame was whisked by air to Russia by an organisation with close presidential ties; this year it is also being taken to Crimea in celebration of its annexation. In Athens, a row broke out after a sceptical writer, Nikos Dimou, complained over the public funds that are used to air-lift the flame to Greece “with honours befitting a head of state”, escorted by a government minister. Presumably the faithful managed to celebrate Easter before the age of air travel, added Stelios Kouloglou, another well-known journalist. But Mr Dimou resigned from a newly founded political movement after his words earned him a rebuke.

    Meanwhile, in other places where the Jerusalem flame cannot easily be air-lifted, there were equally impressive celebrations as candle light cascaded through darkened churches and exhausted but eager choirs sang hymns like “Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” In Damascus, Easter ceremonies were decently attended despite the muffled shell-fire in the background. In Kiev, Easter messages were mingled in some cases with denunciations of Moscow. In the Turkish-controlled Cypriot port of Famagusta, the holding of a Good Friday ceremony for the first time in over half a century offered a glimmer of inter-communal hope. And in the Ulster Protestant stronghold of Ballymena, Erasmus can report, about 200 Romanian migrants lit one another’s candles at midnight with nostalgic pleasure. The flame remains the same, but the world it touches keeps changing.

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    Easter celebrations 2: a new-ish perspective from Judaism?

    April 21st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Seder and Supper, Resurrection and Easter? ]
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    There has been a long dispute as to whether the Last Supper, at which Christ inaugurated the Eucharist, was a Passover seder or not.

    The Gospel of John, 19.14, says that Jesus was taken before Pilate, tried and presumably cricified on the day of “the preparation of the passover” – whereas the three other (“synoptic”) gospels suggest the Last Supper was held on “the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” There’s immense poetry in the notion of Christ as the “Psachal Lamb” or “Lamb of God” — and the Lutheran theologian Joachim Jeremias‘ great work, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, which came out while I was studying Theology at Oxford, makes a powerful case for the Supper as Seder view.

    But what of Easter?

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    And on the third day, he rose again:

    Whereas Muslims tend to deny that the crucifixion took place — see Tim Furnish‘s fascinating blog post today about the Ismaili exception to this general rule — Judaism has until recently accepted that Christ may have died as described in the gospels, but asserted that the Easter resurrection concept was foreign to Judaic thinking.

    There’s now at least one scholarly voice, and one piece of evidence, that suggests this may not be the case.

    The burning question, apparently, is whether line 80 of this recently discovered “stone Dead Sea Scroll” known as the Gabriel Stone reads “making the dead live after three days” or “in three days the sign will be (given)”.

    I am fascinated, but by no means scholar enough to debate the question. For more on the topic, see this 2008 New York Times piece. I have not been following the debate as it has unfolded, and am behind the curve on this one — so if anyone has a pointer to more recent scholarly resources, I’d appreciate an update.

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    Mantegna, the Risen Christ:

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