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Chet Richards on “Who Still Reads Boyd?”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Dr. Chet Richards had an excellent blog post on the continuing relevance of Colonel John Boyd’s strategic concepts:

Who still reads Boyd?

Apparently the Russians. In “The Moscow School of hard knocks: Key pillars of Russian strategy,” 17 Jan 2017,  CNA analyst and former NDU program manager Michael Kofman
offers vivid illustrations of ideas that Boyd developed in his various papers and presentations (all available on our Articles page).  He doesn’t cite Boyd, but you’ll recognize the concepts.

I have no idea of how Kofman came across these ideas — Boyd has nine pages of sources at the end of Patterns of Conflict, so he isn’t claiming that he thought most of them up. Regardless of how Kofman discovered them, he establishes that they certainly do work, but unfortunately not for us.

For example, when describing Russia’s overall approach to strategy, he notes that

Russia’s leadership is pursuing an emergent strategy common to business practice and the preferred path of startups, but not appreciated in the field of security studies. The hallmarks of this approach are fail fast, fail cheap, and adjust. It is principally Darwinian, prizing adaptation over a structured strategy.

This should leap out at anyone even casually familiar with Boyd since Patterns of Conflict cites the theory of evolution by natural selection as one of its two foundations (war is the other).

Boyd’s whole approach to strategy was emergent. This is clear not only from how he uses strategy but in how he defines the term, at the end of Strategic Game:

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

In other words, there is an overall objective — it’s not just random actions, even very rapid actions, for action’s sake — and the pattern emerges as our “efforts” interact with the “unfolding and often unforeseen world.” You see a similar philosophy in Kofman’s description of the Russian approach:

This is confusing to follow when Russia’s goals are set, and yet operational objectives change as they run through cycles of adaptation. It is also a method whereby success begets success and failure is indecisive, simply spawning a new approach.

Compare to Patterns 132: “Establish focus of main effort together with other effort and pursue directions that permit many happenings, offer many branches, and threaten alternative objectives. Move along paths of least resistance (to reinforce and exploit success).”

Why take such an approach? Right after his definition of strategy, Boyd suggests an answer:

Read the rest here

Strategy and Prometheus Unbound

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Senior Counselor to the President and Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon has been very much in the news lately, as one might expect of a former Breitbart editor turned closest adviser to the President of the United States. Much of this has been political fare by friends and foes (ok, mostly foes). We have read debates about his ideological worldview, the exact nature of Bannon’s (and Breitbart’s)  ties to the sinister Alt-Right, his rank in the White House pecking order, Bannon’s vision of realignment of American politics, populism, ethnonationalism, executive orders, the books he reads and so on. Charles has already weighed in here but I am not delving into these things today.

Less attention, though usually also accompanied by outrage, have been stories on foreign policy and national security. Nevertheless, the media gave wide play to Bannon’s comments about potential war with China, possible civilizational partnership with Putin’s Russia and most notably, Bannon being given a permanent invitation to meetings of the Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council. Most Democrats and many national security professionals believed Bannon, as a political adviser,  had no business being seated on the NSC by historical standards. While this is true, it is not a very credible argument in light of the previous administration’s decision to make a mere campaign speechwriter with no prior experience an unusually powerful Deputy National Security Adviser.

I think the criticisms based on customary protocol arguments miss the mark by a country mile.

We are all familiar with the ancient Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus. It was Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought”, who defied the gods to give Man the gift of fire – a gift that unleashed the immense creative powers of mankind. For this affront to the gods’ authority, Prometheus was severely punished. Zeus binds Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where an eagle tears out his liver each day. A torment Prometheus endures for ages until the coming of Hercules.

Strategy in American national security is much like Prometheus. Potentially useful as a creative force, sometimes employed like the gift of fire as a useful tool in a small way, most often inert, bound immobile to the rock of policy as politics savagely tears out the liver of anyone posing a strategy that might prevent a foreign policy crisis from becoming a debacle. The truth is that the gods, or in this case the established political class, much prefer a predictable and orderly debacle under their stewardship than a messy win for America with unpredictable second and third order effects.

In fairness, most of the time, stability while accruing small losses is preferable for a global hegemonic power like the United States to disruptively embarking upon large risks to its position in order to win small gains. So long as the international system is strategically designed to sustain hegemony, occasional losses can be a cost of doing business until the system or parts of it no longer appear to be working. Or until political support wanes at home.

The objection to Bannon (aside from his politics) is that a domestic political strategist should not be involved in the NSC. David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were not. Karl Rove wasn’t.  James Carville, Lee Atwater and innumerable other key political White House staffers never sat on the NSC. However, I don’t think Steve Bannon was invited to attend NSC Principal Committee meetings in that role. Nor was he “replacing” the DNI or CIA Director or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not “replaced” but as customary bureaucratic constraints on policy formulation they were intentionally removed.

I think Steve Bannon – whose prior professional efforts at a high level were all about creating and articulating a vision – is really the Trump administration’s grand strategist.

And he’s unbound.

 

 

New Article up at Divergent Options

Monday, January 16th, 2017

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

[…]

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Read the rest here.

U.S. Strategy Board – An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for Nixon Kissinger the Team

Dr. Frank Hoffman has a piece up in Eurasiareview.com assessing the merits of an idea that in my humble opinion has some utility not merely for the incoming Trump administration but the institutional national security bureaucracy – a Strategy Board.

A Presidential Strategy Board: Enabling Strategic Competence – Analysis

The National Security Council (NSC) staff was once called the Keepers of the Keys, managers of the coordinating process that is central to an administration’s ability to plan and conduct a successful grand strategy.[1] The NSC has had an evolving role, as has its staff.[2] The NSC evolves to the strategic context that any administration faces, and it must also reflect the information processing and decision-making style of the president. The inbound Trump administration will soon face the challenge of integrating America’s diplomatic, military, and economic tools and applying them globally and coherently.

Many have offered advice on how to properly focus NSC staff as well as the “right size” of the group. NSC structures and processes are designed to fulfill the needs of the president and should support his policy and decision-making requirements. These may vary from president to president to fit information processing and decision-making styles as well as the character of an administration’s foreign policy. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the president-elect’s National Security Advisor, will manage the evolution of the NSC team to best support Mr. Trump and establish processes and coordinating mechanisms to tee up presidential decisions and implement the foreign policy initiatives of our 45th President.

[….]

More importantly, we have misdiagnosed and mislabeled the problem. The White House’s real shortfall is strategy formulation, not planning. Strategy is not planning, but a good strategy enables proper planning.[20] Hence, I contend that the solution lies in creating a Strategy Board.

The Deputy National Security Advisor—President-elect Trump has tapped K.T. McFarland for the position—would chair the Strategy Board, and the board would not duplicate the existing system of Deputy and Principal’s committees. Its composition would include serving government officials below the existing committee structure from the Departments, NSC, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff members as well as external members from outside government. Like Eisenhower’s board, this group would be charged with anticipating problems, generating solutions independent of Departmental preferences/inclinations, and proposing cost effective strategies. The planning details of approved strategic initiatives would be delegated to the respective Departments.

The board would conduct long-range strategic planning processes for presentation to the Deputy and Principal’s Committees at regular periods, including presidential strategy directives assigning priorities and resource allocations that would shape or inform Departmental budgets.[21] OMB representation would improve the connection between policy and budgets, enhancing long-term implementation and strategic coherence.

Read the whole thing here.

This is a good idea as strategic excellence has been a quality not greatly in evidence in American statecraft in the previous sixteen years and many have argued that we have been adrift since the end of the Cold War. The time horizons of the NSC and the IC are chronically driven by a sense of urgency toward the short term, to “reporting” over “analysis”, to tactics and political gestures over strategic perspectives – something a strategy board with some gravitas in its members would help counterbalance.

I had a related proposal five or six years ago that was more blue sky than Dr. Hoffman’s strategy board, focusing on the long to very long term American grand strategy:

Time for a Grand Strategy Board? 

….The President of the United States, of course has a number of bodies that could, should but do not always provide strategic advice. There’s the Defense Policy Advisory Board, an Intelligence Advisory Board,  the National Intelligence Council, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the Office of Net Assessment and not least, the NSC itself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman, by act of Congress, is the military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense. While strategic thinking does percolate from these entities, many have very specific mandates or, conversely, wide ranging briefs on matters other than strategy. Some operate many levels below the Oval Office, are filled with superannuated politicians or have personnel who, while intellectually brilliant, are excessively political and untrained in matters of strategy. The Joint Chiefs, the professionals of strategy, are highly cognizant of the Constitutional deference they are required to give to civilian officials and are very leery of overstepping their bounds into the more political realms of policy and grand strategy.

What  the President could use is a high level group just focused on getting strategy right – or making sure we have one at all.

I’m envisioning a relatively small group composed of a core of pure strategists leavened with the most strategically oriented of our elder statesmen, flag officers, spooks and thinkers from cognate fields. A grand strategy board would be most active at the start of an administration and help in the crafting of the national strategy documents and return periodically when requested to give advice. Like the Spartan Gerousia, most of the members ( but not all) would be older and freer of the restraint of institutional imperatives and career ambitions. Like the Anglo-American joint chiefs and international conferences of WWII and the immediate postwar era, they would keep their eye on the panoramic view.

Read the rest here.

We have seen in many administrations and not least in the last two, a tendency toward insularity and groupthink, to politicized intelligence, to cutting subject matter experts out of the policy loop to better put forward much cherished but stridently evidence-free ideas and a general approach that eschews basic strategic thinking in favor of grasping for momentary tactical advantages to please domestic political factions. This lack of overarching strategy to tie together the strands of policy so that our bureaucracies pull in the direction of reality is why we lose wars and repeatedly get diplomatically outmaneuvered on the world stage by second and third rate powers.

A strategy board would not be a silver bullet. It won’t cure White House micromanagement by itself or keep the NSC from going rogue or make Defense, CIA or State produce workable options for the POTUS in a timely fashion. But a strategy board could well help clarify thinking at the inception and challenge the various players to pull together intellectually and operationally. It could makes things better.

And at the rate America has been going lately, we could hardly do worse.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

In my first post on this Roundtable I brought up the concept of strategic narrative and how it serves as a link between Thucydides and Clausewitz from a strategic theory perspective.  Describing the layered nature of The Peloponnesian War, Ned Lebow, expanding on W. Robert Conner, outlines four levels of narrative:  The first regards “interest, justice and their relationship”.  The second is the story of Athens as a tragedy.  The third, following the second, is “the relationship between nomos (convention, custom, law) and phusis (nature) and its implications in the development and preservation of civilisation”.  The fourth and final level in this outline is the “meta-theme” of the entire narrative: “the rise and fall of Greek civilisation, and the circumstances in which different facets of human nature come to the fore”.

This follows a standard approach to many great works.  The idea that the author is not so much presenting a story, as much as attempting to engage with the reader, get them to question their own preconceived notions about a subject, essentially to create a dialectic in which the reader is able to achieve a higher level of understanding through a process of reading, questioning, contemplating and then going on to the next related element, while at the same time retaining the conceptual whole and how the various elements are related.  Not so surprisingly the same is said about Clausewitz’s On War.

The Corcyrean revolution is chillingly described in 3.70-3.85.  Here we see all the levels of the narrative displayed as complex interactions.  Interest has overcome justice, which in any case is only achievable among equals.  But does actual equality exist between humans, as in democratic structures of government, or are they simply a myth?  Conventions and customs fall prey to human nature and impulse, while the meanings of words decay (through narrow interest) which in turn has an effect on actions, which in turn has to be justified thus leading to further decay of the overall narrative.  As with Thucydides’s description of the plague in Athens in Book II, some respond heroically to this turmoil (stasis), but most succumb giving themselves over to impulse and/or fear and act in ways that would have been inconceivable prior to the crisis.  Civilisation itself, which requires a basis (shared interests, justice, language, common conventions, etc,) for stability, starts to come apart.  This all follows more or less the development of a Greek tragedy, or repeated tragedies, with the implication that this is more the nature of humanity as a whole, than being limited to a specific time and place.


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