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“Strategic Patience” has One Virtue

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“Alas, poor Clausewitz….”

The Obama administration released its National Security Strategy last Friday, shepherded by the National Security Courtier, Susan Rice. Even by the increasingly mediocre standards for this exercise the administration managed to hit a new low for vapid superficiality, muddled thought and brazen political appeals to Democratic Party special interest groups, notably the gay lobby and environmental activists.

While it is normal for an administration’s political opposition to deride the NSS (and often there is much to deride; let’s be honest, the Bush administration NSS papers will not be shelved next to The Art of War either) it is atypical for the administration’s own recently retired top officials to blast it right out of the gate:

Former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn blasted the Obama administration’s national security strategy on Sunday, describing it as too narrowly focused on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

 “We need a much broader strategy that recognizes that we’re facing not just this tactical problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Flynn, who retired last year as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“We’re facing a growing, expanding threat around the world,” Flynn said, noting that terrorist threats have doubled in the Middle East and Africa. 

“I think what the American public is they’re looking for moral and intellectual courage and clarity,” Flynn said, adding the public didn’t want “passivity and confusion.”

“There’s confusion about what it is that we’re facing,” he added.

Flynn, who led the DIA for two years under Obama, previously served as assistant Director of National Intelligence and director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command.

Flynn used an analogy of a quarterback leading a football team down the field.

“I feel like when we say ‘ready, break,’ every player on the team is going off into other stadiums, playing different sports,” he said.

Flynn said it was a “good question” when asked who in the Obama administration is in charge of leading the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. “If everybody’s in charge, nobody’s in charge.”

Top tier center-left think tank, The Brookings Institution, is similarly unimpressed.

Flynn is right. No one is in charge. Which is why Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations called on the president to fire his entire senior White House staff and replace them with officials with at least average competence in national security. Gelb, it must be said, is a Democrat.

It is highly unlikely the president will fire any of his second term team regardless of the consistently poor foreign policy results they are delivering for him. If he cared at all, they would be gone already.  The NSC is broken and is unable to formulate strategy because the truth is the President likes it that way and does not want a strategy. Strategies abroad force constraints on the domestic political freedom of action of politicians at home.

There is a silver lining however.

The administration is describing their approach now as one of “strategic patience” – signaling quite clearly that they intend to avoid any substantial foreign policy commitments for the next two years. This has foreign policy and national security community experts (and our allies) very nervous because our adversaries might read that as license for their own regional aggression, or at least substantially reduced risks and costs for ignoring American security interests. This is a valid concern, but there is a flip side.

If the people steering the ship of state have demonstrated – repeatedly- that they are not up to even the basics of the job, that they cannot read the horizon, operate the bridge or navigate successfully, do you really want this team going full steam ahead? In any direction? We are better off with the ship at anchor.

The real strategic patience will be the American people waiting out this dead in the water  administration.

In Praise of Don Vandergriff for the “Next Yoda” at ONA

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Don Vandergriff

Friend of ZP blog and expert on adaptive leadership training Don Vandergriff has thrown his hat into the ring to replace the much admired, should not have been retired, Andrew Marshall,  the long time (appointed originally by Richard Nixon) head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, affectionately known in DC circles as “Yoda”. Given the military’s badly broken personnel system and dire problem with “toxic leaders” and Vandergriff’s adamant philosophical emphasis upon ethical integrity, strategic thinking and honest intellectual inquiry, he would be a breath of fresh air and catalyst for change.

James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly gave Don a ringing endorsement:

Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let’s-rock-the-boat reformer and the “don’t make waves” normal promotion machine.

Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as “the most influential major in the U.S. Army.” I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

Yes he would.

Fabius Maximus blog weighs in as well:

….Donald Vandergriff (one of the authors on the FM website) has identified a powerful point of leverage to change our massive and dysfunctional military apparatus:  its personnel system, the process by which the Army recruits, trains, and promotes its officers. Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve. The Army has begun the long slow evolution of its personnel policies, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.

This success puts Vandergriff on the cutting edge of America’s sword. He, and others like him, are crafting a solution of the third kind (about people) to defeat our foes at 4GW.  We can win at 4GW. We must learn to do so, or the 21st century will be a harsh time for America.

There are many strategic and operational issues that the U.S. military and NatSec community would prefer to ignore because they do not play to our areas of strength where the United States enjoys overwhelming dominance relative to the rest of the world. Well, these problem areas will only grow in scope and importance because they are the points where our adversaries see hope of gaining leverage and comparative advantage over us. I am almost tempted to say “Duh” here because enemies hitting your weak points instead of running headlong into our strong points and being killed en mass is strategy 101, but strategy is less popular in some quarters these days than it should be. Don Vandergriff is the sort of man to highlight deficiencies so they can be remediated and, eventually, become new strengths.

Don Vandergriff….strongest recommendation.

Aircraft Carriers and Maritime Strategy – a debate

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Last Friday night at the U.S. Naval Academy, retired Navy Captain Henry “Jerry” Hendrix and Commander Bryan McGrath debated the future of the aircraft carrier. My wife and I were fortunate to attend. Given the pressure placed on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, the debate could not have been more timely. Commander McGrath argued the “nuclear aircraft carriers with air wings are the most cost effective and efficient platform to project power in the maritime and littoral realm to support U.S. national security interests in current and future security environments.” Captain Hendrix argued against this resolution. While both arguments hold much merit, I tend to side with Captain Hendrix.

Lots of numbers and statistics were thrown around, but one issue did not enter the debate: it has been 70 years since an aircraft carrier was shot at. The lesson of the Falklands War underscores the potential power of modern precision munitions, and carriers are big targets.

This video is highly recommended. C-SPAN also recorded the debate with a transcript here.

T. Greer on Sun Tzu the Radical

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on Sun Tzu and his classic The Art of War the other day in which I learned a number of things that were new to me, which is the best kind of blog post!

The Radical Sunzi

When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzifrom the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical. [….]

Here comes the important part, one that demonstrates a curious symmetry with the cultural shift  between the post-Dark Age heroic-aristocratic Archaic Greece to the Classical Greece of the Golden Age that laid the foundations of Western civilization:

….The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing???, does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

Read the rest here

I just finished reading a book by the Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice; here’s an enormous difference between a culture that “sacrifices to” and one that is worth or requires “sacrificing for“. It is not only a cultural difference, it is cognitive. Strategy is possible in a “sacrificing to” society only to the extent that it does not conflict with (often maximalist) religious dictates, which will often mean a rational strategy to achieve victory is impossible. The Jews at Masada or the Greeks of the Trojan War would have understood the precepts of warfare of the ancient Chinese of the Zhou era very well.

In war, the bronze age peoples sacrificed to. We sacrifice for – and to spend our lives to best effect we need strategy.

ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.


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