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“Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Friend of the blog, commenter L.C. Rees, likes to point out that one of the most important part of a grand strategy, particularly one that is maintained despite evidence of being a geopolitical failure, are the domestic political effects that work to the advantage of the faction supporting it.  In my view, grand strategy usually has a political or cultural evolutionary component and, human nature being unchanging, Rees’s cynical observation has merit.

Last year, a couple of JCS aides/field grade officers wrote a grossly overpraised paper that was pushed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Thomas Friedman and assorted worthies, that purported to be about a new grand strategy with which America could navigate the world. Mostly it centered on a preference for an America being run by a vaguely EU-like, technocratic, regime under the rubric of “sustainment”, in which the authors wisely folded in a number of  shibboleths popular with the corporate-liberal upper class who write large donation checks to think tanks or make their living in public policy and academia.

The talk of this nature died down when the election cycle began, but the themes were recently revived by the New America Foundation’s Grand Strategy Project whose director had an op-ed in Foreign Policy to reintroduce this agenda to the chattering classes now that the pesky voters are out of the way until 2014:

A New U.S. Grand Strategy 

….Walkable communities: The first pool of demand is homegrown. American tastes have changed from the splendid isolation of the suburbs to what advocates are calling the “five-minute lifestyle” — work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five-minute walk of the front door. From 2014 to 2029, baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, will converge in the housing marketplace — seeking smaller homes in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Already, 56 percent of Americans seek this lifestyle in their next housing purchase. That’s roughly three times the demand for such housing after World War II.
If only Bismarck had included some “walkable communities” for Prussia, Europe might have avoided the tragedy of World War I.
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Incidentally, all of this argument from assertion is unsupported rubbish keyed to a preexisting anti-suburban agenda the Obama administration brought with them into office in 2009. As Joel Kotkin explained:

….Whenever possible, the Clintons expressed empathy with suburban and small-town voters. In contrast, the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites—most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Many Obama appointees—such as at the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—favor a policy agenda that would drive more Americans to live in central cities. And the president himself seems to embrace this approach, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

Not surprisingly, belief in “smart growth,” a policy that seeks to force densification of communities and returning people to core cities, animates many top administration officials. This includes both HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Undersecretary Ron Sims, Transportation undersecretary for policy Roy Kienitz, and the EPA’s John Frece.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood revealed the new ideology when he famously declared the administration’s intention to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into transit. In Congress, the president’s allies, including Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, have advocated shifting a larger chunk of gas tax funds collected from drivers to rail and other transit.

In addition, the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores. Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

Suburbanites may not yet be conscious of the anti-suburban stance of the Obama team, but perhaps they can read the body language. Administration officials have also started handing out $300 million stimulus-funded grants to cities that follow “smart growth principles.” Grants for cities to adopt “sustainability” oriented development will reward those communities with the proper planning orientation. There is precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads or investment in other basic infrastructure.

Kotkin nails it. Mr. Doherty is simply trying to find some national security window dressing for an elite preference that ordinary people will be much easier to manage, monitor and fleece if they are concentrated in high-density urban housing and prevented from voting with their feet by a network of punitive, anti-development, anti-mobility, Federal  regulations. The research paper, if you can call it that, justifying this authoritarian agenda can be found here. Judge for yourself.
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However, this is no idle pipe dream, it has been done before. The  Japanese pursued a similar national “grand strategy” after WWII with the blessing of Washington to reconstruct defeated Japan: the old, independent,  Japanese business empires called zaibatsu were transformed by SCAP into submissive keiretsu that would take “administrative guidance” from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Finance. In return, the keiretsu were heavily subsidized by the government, which kept Japanese “salarymen” to an artificially low “middle-class” standard of living with macroeconomic policies that forced the Japanese to have an extremely high level of savings. A docile work force penned into tiny apartments, governed by a de facto one-party autocracy of the Liberal Democratic Party that kept the rent-farming machinery in place for big business for fifty years. It isn’t a great model, it is not what Walter Lippmann would have called “a good society” but it did work.
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Mexico under the PRI dictatorship was a more backward version of this paradigm, as was Chicago under Mayor Daley.
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Now back to our own grand strategy of walkable communitarianism:

…..Every continental-scale economic region must embark on a decisive sustainability strategy without delay. Working within existing norms of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, America will lead the partnership of major economies to refashion the global economic system around eight or nine economic blocs, each boasting the scale necessary to support mature industrial ecosystems. This will mean promoting and strengthening regional economic blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Union of South American Nations, the African Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

This part is literally nonsensical.

Say what you want about Osama bin Laden’s powers of rhetoric: he may have failed to convince his fellow Muslims to unite the ummah into a Caliphate but he evidently convinced a lot of people at The New America Foundation that Islam is an economy.

And as aside, why the hell is pushing political unification of South America or Africa under top-heavy, transnational bureaucracies in American interest? It sure isn’t in the interest of poor Africans or campesinos. For that matter, how can Africa unify if a third of their states will be in the OIC? WTF? Does Foreign Policy use editors or is it just a blog?

However, all that was simply geopolitical fantasizing over matters about which the United States has little control and would be unlikely to come off even under the best of circumstances. The next part I suspect is intended much more seriously. It certainly reflects a worldview that is pernicious and apparently more widespread among our elite than we realized, for which they are now testing the waters, to see if their fellow citizens are the herd they imagine us to be and if they can get away with it.

….Just as America would never fight a 21st-century war with Korean War-era weapons, it should not govern today with institutions devised for a bygone era. The Founding Fathers established a constitution that allows for the adaptation of the institutions of government to the knowledge, threats, and opportunities confronting each generation. Americans should make use of that foresight. Under this strategy, the country will adapt the institutions of its federal government to execute this grand strategy and invest in the American people to ensure that they receive the opportunities they need to be informed and engaged citizens. 

This is a tentative call, in milquetoast, coded, language, to find legal stratagems to gut the Bill of Rights and euthanize American democracy, or at least render it comatose, as a mere facade for a new paternalist technocracy that treats citizens as wards or children while we are rent-farmed for the benefit of a small elite. Certainly when we are all marooned in our government-regulated, high-density, housing, disarmed and without private transportation or much disposable income it will be too late for us to raise our voices in protest.  Doherty is correct about one aspect, such a society is probably “sustainable”; feudalism after all lasted more than a thousand years.

In plain English, the strategy of “sustainment” is a long term policy for postmodern serfdom with most of us intended to be walking behind the oxen when we are not wearing the yoke ourselves. Despite the nervous, thin-lipped, smiles and hasty reassurances, these people truly wish us and our children ill.

The good news is that none of this can come to pass without our consent. The U.S. Constitution is both sword and shield, if you are willing to pick it up. Speak, write, organize, litigate and vote out of office would-be authoritarians no matter what party label they wear. The best antidote for our creeping oligarchy is electing and appointing to office a large number of people outside of this exceedingly insular, geographically and intellectually narrow, social circle of graduates of  a handful of universities and last few percentage points of socioeconomic status who have in the last 15 years grabbed control of our government.

Really, we’re Americans – our talent pool is 315 million strong. We can easily do better.

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Guns and The New Paternalism

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg      Photo credit: The New York Times 

Longtime reader and blogfriend Eddie Beaver sent me a link to an article by NYT columnist, Ross Douthat. In my view, Douthat has written a fairly important observation of a political dynamic that is broader than the simply the new push by the elite for new and stringent gun control legislation:

Bloomberg, LaPierre and the Void

FOR a week after the Newtown shooting, the conversation was dominated by the self-righteous certainties of the American center-left. In print and on the airwaves, the chorus was nearly universal: the only possible response to Adam Lanza’s rampage was an immediate crusade for gun control, the necessary firearm restrictions were all self-evident, and anyone who doubted their efficacy had the blood of children on his hands.

The leading gun control chorister was Michael Bloomberg, and this was fitting, because on a range of issues New York’s mayor has become the de facto spokesman for the self-consciously centrist liberalism of the Acela Corridor elite. Like so many members of that class, Bloomberg combines immense talent with immense provincialism: his view of American politics is basically the famous New Yorker cover showing Manhattan’s West Side overshadowing the world, and his bedrock assumption is that the liberal paternalism with which New York is governed can and should be a model for the nation as a whole.

….Unfortunately for our country, the Bloomberg versus LaPierre contrast is basically all of American politics today. Our society is divided between an ascendant center-left that’s far too confident in its own rigor and righteousness and a conservatism that’s marched into an ideological cul-de-sac and is currently battering its head against the wall.

….The establishment view is interventionist, corporatist and culturally liberal. It thinks that issues like health care and climate change and immigration are best worked out through comprehensive bills drawn up by enlightened officials working hand in glove with business interests. It regards sexual liberty as sacrosanct, and other liberties — from the freedoms of churches to the rights of gun owners — as negotiable at best. It thinks that the elite should pay slightly higher taxes, and everyone else should give up guns, SUVs and Big Gulps and live more like, well, Manhattanites. It allows the president an entirely free hand overseas, and takes the Bush-Obama continuities in foreign policy for granted.

Douthat’s criticism of a reflexively angry but unimaginative and politically inept Right is correct, but class trumps mere Left-Right distinctions regarding gun control, with celebrity pundit Fareed Zakaria and conservative press baron Rupert Murdoch aligning with fellow Manhattan West Side billionaire and gun control zealot, Mayor Michael  Bloomberg  and various worthies in calling for UK style “gun bans”.

Britain of course, does not have a 2nd Amendment or, for that matter, a written Constitution that acts as a bar to government curtailment of civil liberties and both Parliament and British courts have different views on the limits of basic rights of free speech, self-defense (not just with guns), property and other liberties than the American norm. In light of the  2nd Amendment and District of Columbia vs. Heller, that sort of draconian legislation that makes gun ownership a privilege of the very few, would be obviously unconstitutional. If Illinois, for example must comply with a Federal Appellate Court order to permit citizens under new legislation to carry concealed guns, it is rather unlikely the Federal courts will entertain a confiscatory national gun control law that would trample not only the 2nd Amendment, but the 4th, 5th and 14th along the way. Nor would the governors of a majority of American states be on board for this, nor most Congressmen from rural states or the high tens of millions of Americans who own guns and reside in zip codes outside of Georgetown and Manhattan.

However, a healthy disregard for the strictures of Constitutional law and the liberties of ordinary citizens is a hallmark of the New Paternalism of our increasingly oligarchic elite, composed of superwealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, Fortune 500 CEOs and the technocratic-political-legal class sporting ivy league pedigrees. They are even worse on the 4th Amendment and individual privacy than on gun rights look disapprovingly at the First, which constrains their ability to censor and punish unenlightened opinions or political criticism. Outside of gay marriage and abortion, I am hard pressed to think of a single individual liberty our elite holds in unqualified esteem or at least in as much esteem in their own presumed competence to rule.

As Douthat noted, this not merely about guns, but of this small group having a searing contempt for the way the majority of Americans live their lives and a manifest, bipartisan, desire to regulate them for their own good in matters great and small. To decide how other Americans should educate their children; whether they should go to college and if so, what they should be permitted to study;  how much and what kind of food they should be allowed to eat or drink; whether their religion should be treated with deference in public policy or dismissed for the greater good; where they should live and how far back their “middle-class” living standards should be cut or pensions reduced, transformed or eliminated for the benefit of those whose incompetently  mismanaged companies, banks and   equities firms were so recently bailed out by taxpayers and the Federal Reserve.

It would be one thing, of course, if these high minded New Paternalists intended to live under the laws they eagerly want to impose on the rest of us, but largely they intend a different set of rules for themselves. They are ardent gun-control advocates who pack heat, public pension reformers who loot their employee’s pensions to enrich themselves, ed reformers who send their kids to posh private schools , crusaders against obesity who love junk food, zealous environmentalists with giant carbon footprints and advocates of tax reform whose corporations pay no taxes. Their mismatch between words and deeds is so vast as to almost be admirable – say what you like about this cabal’s lack of humility or sense stewardship, they hit the jackpot when it came to chutzpah.

If Hubris mated with Hypocrisy, their offspring would look much like the present American leadership class.

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Reforming Intelligence vs.Intelligent Reforms

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The intense behind the scenes lobbying on behalf of prospective candidates to replace General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA and the ongoing furor over Ambassador Rice’s “talking points” on Benghazi, have spilled over into op-eds quietly urging that the vacancy be used as an opportunity for reforms of the IC and CIA. This is not unexpected – the churn of ” IC reform” tends to be cyclical, free of institutional or historical memory and useful for distracting the media from genuine problems – but it is also true that the situation could bear improvement.

One of the smarter observations was by former star analyst Nada Bakos in Foreign Policy:

…..In light of this, what should the DNI’s role be in the intelligence community, if not disseminating a coordinated intelligence product? The CEO of a company is typically the one planning strategy, interfacing with board members, stockholders, and consumers. A CEO doesn’t typically write the chief financial officer’s year-end summary or the marketing director’s strategy — instead, he views both products from 25,000 feet to ensure the company is on steady footing. The DNI should have a similar role: rather than replicating work, it should focus on reviewing the source material from the various agencies and collaborating to ensure all of the information has been reviewed. In the case of the Benghazi talking points, the intelligence community all had a role in editing the talking points once passed from the CIA. Other points of view make sense, but in the immediate aftermath of something like Benghazi, the arrival of new (and possibly conflicting information) is likely to confuse, not improve, the product. It is best to leave the dissemination, in the immediate aftermath, in the hands of the agency that owns the source of the information and is in the business of disseminating intel products — in this case the CIA.

As with the recent and somewhat ironic leaking that the Pentagon is going to overrun the Earth with hordes of DIA covert agents [i.e. 90% of new money and personnel will probably feed the CONUS based DIA bureaucracy as a budget protection strategy] when an agency or entity can get political authorities to grant them incursions into another bureaucracy’s turf, it is because that bureaucracy has ceased doing it’s job so long ago everyone has just accepted that it will never change.

The Bakos piece contrasts well with the politicized bullshittery being offered in The New York Times. Here are some of my favorite bits of harmful nonsense:

….The United States has over 280 diplomatic posts worldwide. They are working on drug interdiction, arms control negotiations, border security, counterterrorism, access to energy and trade, implementing sanctions, fair trade and the like. Intelligence helps diplomats recognize everything from cheating on agreements to social unrest and surprise attack. And it helps them make decisions that lower the risks and consequences of war.

The new director should rededicate the C.I.A. to supporting these diplomatic operations.

Right. Each ambassador should get to play amateur Station Chief and fritter away extremely scarce intel resources on pet projects because, you know, the State Department has done such an awesome job on it’s own core missions the past decade or so, and….uh…wait….

….The best way to ensure the intelligence process can both produce the best analysis possible, free from political and policy influence, and that covert operations are smart and legal is to ensure the director is an independent actor not subject to political pressure. Making the job a 10-year appointment, which will cross the lines of elections, offers a way to reduce the risk of politicization.

Shorter Bruce Reidel: The DCIA should be able to delay or refuse the President’s order to do covert ops so the US will do far fewer of them and in maximum risk-averse fashion.

No.

You de-politicize the DCIA by not having new presidents fire old DCIAs because they were appointed by an administration from the other party, a practice begun not by Ronald Reagan as Bruce Reidel mistakenly believes, but by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The idea that the DCIA who is expected to oversee the most sensitive covert missions (i.e. those intended to have strategic or political effects) should be “independent” of the President is some form of really poor Constitutional theorizing. What happens when an “independent” DCIA launches covert ops *against* the wishes of a President?

Here are a few ideas that would be useful to keep in mind, if “reform” of the IC and CIA is actually desired and isn’t merely a stalking horse for smuggling in a different set of  foreign policy preferences unsupported by the wider American public (which I suspect much of the recent noise is):

It isn’t a choice between a “Militarized” CIA and a CIA that does HUMINT collection:

The CIA is supposed to do both covert action and intel collection and always did. Period. The true anomaly is the comatose period after the Church-Pike Hearings bloodied the CIA on Capitol Hill and created a deeply risk-averse generation of CIA managers, who, it must be said, did not exactly bend over backwards in the 1990’s to unleash a legion of deep cover operatives and agents of influence. The “militarized CIA” meme is utter B.S. from folks who dislike armed drones and kinetic tactics and lost that policy argument two years ago.

Drones and nefarious celebrity generals are not what prevents the CIA from more robust intel collection effort – only CIA management prevents better HUMINT collection by not prioritizing it and increasing the number of CIA personnel in overseas postings.

The Director of the CIA, alone or in combination with the DNI, is not the solution:

What is required is an engaged and active Chief Executive willing to spend time and political capital making the IC work for his administration the way it should and the way he needs. This may mean firing the recalcitrant, the resistant and the risk-averse and taking heat from The Washington Post and The New York Times when their favorite “senior official” sources start screaming bloody murder on background to undermine their DCIA and DNI.

Top talent in the DCIA chair, one with real gravitas on the Hill if possible, will be important but that person will still need the full backing of the President and key members of Congress or nothing will change.

“Clandestinity” and Strategic intel are more important than “Reportage”:

Senior officials in any administration like to get IC  briefs that edge out the media on breaking events and bring them details they can’t find in their own, usually very extensive, personal networks or from the bureaucracies and agency experts they themselves oversee.  The CIA in particular has catered to this demand as, it must be said, they are obligated to do.

The problem is that in economic terms, the marginal value of “secret” information over what information is available in the open media in an emerging crisis is not going to be very great unless the CIA has made substantial investments in clandestine networks in the crisis area over a period of years or decades to acquire “strategic” intel, or at least a formidable position to uncover some.

Pouring ever greater resources into near real time “reportage” and being a slightly spooky version of CNN makes such long-term, clandestine investments by the CIA less likely, less deep and less influential in shaping emerging events. Much like having a .357 magnum when someone is crawling through your bedroom window at 3 am, when a crisis erupts overseas, America either has a robust clandestine network on location or it does not.

Congress has a key role and usually abdicates it in favor of grandstanding or rearranging deck chairs:

The IC will work better with consistently active oversight done with a minimum of partisan rancor and an avoidance of any new legislation that features a new (and usually more complex) org chart. It’s important -sometimes delicate operations and lives depend on our politicians behaving and speaking with discretion. If there are important objectives for national security for the IC to accomplish, nothing sends that message better than the administration and key members of the intelligence committees acting in concert to make a policy succeed.

I’m not holding my breath on that last one.

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Congratulations!!

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

To Lexington Green and James Bennett, for finishing their new book, America 3.0 – due out (I think) in 2013 published by Encounter Books.

A political vision for an era desperately short on imagination and needing statecraft of inspiration.

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The Deep Shadow of Abraham Lincoln

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Just saw the Steven Spielberg epic Lincoln.  

The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln was titanic; all the anger and villainous darkness he channeled into his earlier memorable characters Bill “the Butcher” and Daniel Plainview are eclipsed in his Lincoln by wisdom and a transcendent, melancholic grace. The supporting cast was equally strong, with Sally Fields alluding in word and deed to the shrewish madness that troubled First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones humanized – probably more than is historical – the implacable political ferocity of Radical Republican leader Representative Thaddeus Stevens; and James Spader added lighthearted realism as Secretary of State Seward’s cagey political fixer and bagman, William N. Bilboe.

Spielberg has done a magnificent storytelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States and he has done even better at capturing Lincoln’s towering stature as a statesman. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is Periclean – in possession of heroic, historical vision and mastery of grand strategy along with an intimate grasp of the granular, grubby mechanics of political deal making and a humane tolerance of other’s frailties needed to make things happen.  The scene where Day-Lewis explains to his squabbling Cabinet Lincoln’s coup d’oeil –  the real Constitutional, moral, military and political exigencies of emancipation governing the imperative questions of the 13th Amendment –  is one of the most brilliant expositions of strategy in the fusion of policy, politics and war that I have ever seen on screen.

In a sense, that was the genius of Abraham Lincoln – surpassing his own humble origins to solve herculean problems without ever losing sight that lasting resolution of Civil War and slavery were going to have to occur on Earth with fallible human beings, operating in a political reality that would never be ideal. The limits of vision of Lincoln’s contemporaries, copperhead and abolitionist, is marked but the comparison between Abraham Lincoln and politicians of our own day is yet for the worse.  Our problems are so much smaller, our resources and capabilities infinitely vaster than the severe test the Republic faced in Lincoln’s time, yet our leaders are grossly inadequate even to these.

Martyrdom naturally magnified the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but even without the assassination he would have still been reckoned our greatest president, one of the rare individuals whose leadership made an irreplaceable mark upon history. If one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination had become president in 1860 instead, or had Lincoln not been re-elected in 1864, the Union cause would have failed.  We would not be who we are nor the world what it is without a United States in the 20th century to stem the tide of  first German domination, then Fascism and then Soviet Communism. The world would be a poorer, darker place and we would be lesser peoples of lesser nations of the former United States.

Lincoln’s shadow is not merely long, it is deep.

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