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

Wednesday, 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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Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]
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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


**

I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?

**

Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.

**

How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?

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Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have

Monday, March 24th, 2014

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

A Sinocentric view of the maritime world courtesy of  The Policy Tensor (hat tip Historyguy 99)

An amigo who is an expert on China pointed me toward a couple of links last weekend. Here is the first:

Japan-China COLD WAR 8 / CPC decisions made under layers of veiled obscurity 

….Whenever a crisis occurs, diplomatic authorities typically attempt to assess the situation by contacting their counterpart of the country concerned to investigate, if any, what their intentions are. For example, the incident could merely have been an accident or a calculated act sanctioned by those at the center of the administration. But when the Chinese become involved, such diplomatic approaches may no longer be a possibility.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which is supposed to be the equivalent of the U.S. State Department or Japan’s Foreign Ministry, is “merely an organization which carries out policies decided by the Communist Party of China (CPC),”a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi is just one of 205 members of the Central Committee of the CPC, and is not even included in the 25-member Politburo, which is regarded as the party’s leadership organ.

Indeed, when the Chinese National Defense Ministry announced the establishment of the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, on Nov. 23, the Japanese Embassy in Beijing approached the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However, an official in charge at the ministry said, “We don’t know about it [ADIZ], as it’s outside our jurisdiction,” which left the embassy nonplussed.

If the Chinese Foreign Ministry is of so little use, then where are the country’s diplomatic policies worked out? Important decisions are made by the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs, while decisions on military affairs are carried out at the Central Military Commission.

The two organizations are central organs within the CPC, erecting a barrier for diplomatic and defense authorities of the United States or Japan. Discussions in these organizations are kept secret from the outside. Diplomatic relations in China are complicated further by individual diplomatic issues sometimes being used as ammunition to attack rivals in power struggles within the Communist Party.

….Between the United States and China, there is the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), signed in January 1998. However, the accord was no use on occasions such as a collision between a U.S. Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in April 2001.

Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy, who was the chief negotiator in vice ministerial-level defense talks with China under the first administration of Barack Obama, said during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 4, that the United States tried to have the MMCA function, but the Chinese side took a backward-looking stance. Although there is a mechanism there, China had almost no intention of complying with the mechanism properly, she added.

Our problem here is not China or the Chinese government, but our own credulity in the face of empirical evidence. The Chinese are simply playing their cards well for as long as we are going to allow them to do so. In their shoes, I would suggest doing exactly the same so long as it keeps working.

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed  representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time- tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

China’s decision-making is both opaque and riven by factions about which Americans are poorly informed, even those who have real academic expertise and language fluency are forced periodically to read tea leaves about high level decisions within the CCP.  The following link represents a certain attitude among more nationalistic Chinese elites:

China Should Coordinate the Gradual Fall of the U.S.

When a giant is about to fall, you should give him certain support to help him to fall down slowly instead of his falling down all of a sudden, or you would be the one who suffers. That’s why I said “China should coordinate the gradual fall of the U.S.” instead of allowing her to collapse all at once.

….In the long term, the U.S. is heading towards decline and will become weaker and weaker. However, the so-called “weak” is a comparative word. In comparison with China, the U.S. is still very strong. The U.S. is going down from the summit, whereas China’s is climbing up from below. 

Sohu Business: That is to say, we do not need to worry about the overall safety of China’s foreign exchange reserve over a period of time?

Sheng Hong: Yes, but we still need to be constantly alert. In the long run, the U.S. dollar will gradually weaken and a crash of the currency is possible when it weakens to a certain extent. This is because, one way to solve the U.S. debt problem is to borrow, and another important way is to increase the supply of dollars, which will further weaken the U.S. dollar. 

If people lose faith in the U.S. dollar and anticipate the U.S. government to continue the inflation policy, they will sell dollars and aggravate the crash of the currency. This, however, will not happen at once. Moreover, the U.S. government is rather cautious at present. Although it is inclined to a loose monetary policy, including the quantitative easing monetary policy, thus increasing the amount of U.S. dollars, which made up the U.S. fiscal deficit, fiscal problems will soon be reflected in its currency. Therefore, in terms of interests, China must be very careful though this problem will not happen right now and that the U.S. dollar is still stronger than the RMB now; in terms of strategies, China should pay more attention to and begin to make preparations for it. Or it would be too late to prepare when that day comes.

…. In fact, the turning point came out long ago. Moreover, I have mentioned in my articles published previously that the turning out was actually the financial crisis which occurred at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. Now, it’s just that some people attached labels to current events, before which many people did not even know about the situation. Nevertheless, economists should start their analysis from the financial crisis. I mentioned in my article titled Who Would Let Obama Stand Alone? that Americans could not blame others for questioning the safety of the U.S. assets since they caused the financial crisis by themselves. I won’t buy your financial assets if I do not trust their safety. If you want me to buy your financial assets, you must offer higher returns. When you lose others’ trust in you, you are already going down from the peak. 

The 9/11 Attacks struck the U.S. seriously, but not as seriously as the Financial Crisis did. The Financial Crisis was inherent rather than extrinsic. I have been following this issue ever since the financial crisis. I said at that time that the U.S. would gradually head towards decline. The debt crisis happened because not so much seigniorage could be collected any more. The U.S. has inertia in foreign military contacts which prevents it from withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq at once, and it had to cope with the financial crisis. Therefore, the debt crisis is inevitable. It is not a turning point but a label attached by S & P. 

….The military contraction. This is very important. After Obama came to power, he clearly sensed that the military existence by the U.S. throughout the world could not remain the same as before because the U.S. has less and less money. The reality of the U.S. faced by Obama is an inevitable continuous contraction, which is actually a strategic turning point of great significance for the U.S. I mentioned just now that when trade deficits are reduced, less reflux of dollars will be attracted, resources of military expenditure will be reduced, and then military forces should be contracted. 

It is human nature to not want to accept the reality that some people genuinely intend us harm. Sure, in the abstract yes but when eye to eye people tend to bend themselves into pretzels giving the other person the benefit of the doubt when the empirical record indicates otherwise. This willing gullibility is why con games have such staying power when the first instance of bad faith is usually a foreshadowing of the nature of who you are really dealing with. It is so much easier psychologically to ignore rather than to confront and embrace conflict (even when it is only rhetorical).

The elephant in the room is that there’s an influential faction within China’s elite that has unrealistic to grandiosely hegemonic ambitions regarding China’s role in Asia and the world. They are not the entirety of China or even China’s leadership, but given China’s aggressive bullying behavior of the past three to five years, they appear to be ascendant. That is a strategic dilemma for the US and its allies.

Our job is to interrupt their momentum so that their hopes come to grief and our that moves that strengthen the faction in China’s leadership that prefers peaceful and harmonious relations over conflict with all of China’s neighbors and the United States.

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A Brief Comment on Ukraine vs. Russia

Friday, March 14th, 2014

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

Russia, borrowing a tactic used by the Soviets with unruly satellites, has massed a fair amount of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine under the guise of “military exercises”

This has spurred much commentary and articles, hawkish and dovish, about what America or NATO can do or not do, as in the Carlo Davis article in The New Republic magazine or Condoleeza Rice writing in WaPo.

In my view, neither America or NATO or even Russia are not the crucial in this moment. The major variable here in deciding what the US should do or not do in terms of policy and strategy are the Ukrainians.

The overriding question is political: Are the Ukrainians willing to fight and kill Russians to preserve their national independence? That’s the key. Are the security services and Ukrainian military loyal, not just to the government but to the idea of an independent Ukraine? Arguably, the behavior of the chief of Ukraine’s Black Sea fleet makes this questionable – is he indicative of his generational cohort’s attitude or not? All the military and IC capacity in the world on paper matters little if the Ukrainian military and security agencies opt for “neutrality” between Moscow and Kiev. And if they are indeed loyal then Putin’s saber rattling will require a tenfold increase in troops to move into Eastern Ukraine and he can expect that his pipelines will be destroyed, buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg blown up and his officials at risk for assassination as Ukrainian infiltrators are about as easy to distinguish from native Russians as Canadians are from Americans.

If Ukraine is serious about fighting then the US and its Western allies can have a rational planning session about what concrete measures will make their fighting capacity more effective and make Russia’s secondary costs high enough to give Putin pause without triggering a direct military clash between NATO and Russia (why we are surprised and chagrined that NATO is not a good for preventing problems which *by design* it was not created to prevent or solve escapes me).

The best options until we have some clarity on Ukraine’s real intentions are to strengthen Ukraine’s new government by helping it take measures that increase its stability and legitimacy in the eyes of wary eastern Ukrainians and the world community while making it clear through a united western front that Russia’s economy will suffer if it invades Ukraine – this means the EU and states like Britain and Germany will share in the pain and not off-load the crisis onto America alone while cutting lucrative side deals with Putin ( the Europeans initial preferred course of action and one doomed to be as fruitless as Putin leading the diplomatic charge to reverse an American seizure of Baja California from Mexico).

Europeans allegedly wanted Ukraine in the EU, now they need to roll up their sleeves and accept significant costs of engaging in counter-pressure. Rhetoric is not enough.

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New Article at War on the Rocks

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

I have a new op-ed up this morning on the Crimean crisis over at War on the Rocks:

Let’s Slow Roll Any Move Toward Crimean War II:

One of the more curious implicit assumptions about the crisis in Ukraine is that the subsequent occupation of the Crimea by Russia represents some kind of triumph for President Vladimir Putin and a defeat for the United States. It is a weird, strategic myopia that comes from an unrealistic belief that the United States should be expected to have a granular level of political control over and responsibility for events on the entire planet. We don’t and never can but this kind of political megalomania leads first to poor analysis and then worse policies.

Far from being entitled to do a victory lap, Putin’s mishandling of Ukraine has dealt Moscow a strategic defeat. With artful bullying and a $15 billion bribe, Putin had pulled off a diplomatic coup by getting President Victor Yanukovych to reverse Ukraine’s nearly finalized deal with the European Union and align itself vaguely with Russia and Putin’s shabby League of Eurasian Dictators. This would have been a tremendous strategic win for Russia to have Ukraine with its rich resources and key geographic location not only well-disposed to Moscow, but as a compliant satellite. Much like Belarus, Ukraine would have been isolated from the West and dependent upon Russia.

….While Russia’s occupation of Crimea merits condemnation and pressure from the world community, including the EU and the United States, the rush in some quarters to make this crisis into a military standoff between Russia and NATO instead of focusing on measures to quickly stabilize the new pro-Western government in Kiev is ill-advised and strategically unwise….

Read the rest here

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