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The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd II: The Saga of Kennanbot

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

(by Adam Elkus) 

Lynn Rees famously pitied the American Geopolitical Nerd.

Pity the American nerd.

His brow furrows.

The American nerd suffers from chronic contradiction. While he sees finely diced reality within his area of expertise in exquisite, even excruciating, detail, he sees the wider world only in the broadest shades of bright, shining ideals, his specialized fixations writ large.

The corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly.  A measured smile. Careful. 

Summoned by Hints of Greater Things to Come, shimmering Just Beyond Reach, the American nerd’s policies are lovingly handcrafted, calibrated to finely exploit his own Unique Domain Knowledge.

He lightly scratches and then strokes his chin. Thoughtful. Ever thoughtful.

In waking slumber, the American nerd makes the world anew. He renews it in the image of the vision of visions. Hisvision. Worthy of his vision.

He frowns.

Defacing the American nerd’s finest intents is a flaw: his vision, in its beauty, is compromised. It’s blemished by the limited, blighted, and unworthy means available to attain it.

To borrow an idea from Daniel Dennett, let us imagine an AI by the name of Kennanbot being utilized for robotics experiments a long time ago.

Kennanbot lives in a simple test environment world that consists of Kennanbot, a threatening entity known as the Soviet Union, and a few other objects. Kennanbot’s job is to figure out how to contain the Soviet Union, which is steadily moving closer to Kennanbot and poses great dangers. The first robot to deal with this scenario is Kennanbot 1.0. Kennanbot 1.0 utilizes an expert system-style architecture that consists of a narrow set of valid (yet highly granular) facts about the world and an inference engine that allows him to make decisions. His knowledge and pre-programmed production rules  pertain almost exclusively to the USSR. However, this knowledge base and inference engine cannot help Kennanbot 1.0 manipulate an novel object in the room that could be of use — the United States of America (USA). If Kennanbot 1.0 knew how to properly operate the USA (something completely absent from Kennanbot’s knowledge base and hard-coded behaviors), he could potentially use it to contain the Soviet Union.  Yet Kennanbot does not understand the USA at all. It is a complex and mysterious object that exists outside of his knowledge base. And since Kennanbot uses the closed world assumption, anything outside the knowledge base doesn’t exist.

The next iteration of Kennanbot, Kennanbot 2.0, uses crude stereotypes to fill in for its lack of knowledge about the USA. Kennanbot cannot come to know the USA as well as an USA resident, but he can at least acquire a compendium of operational frames and scripts to help it interact with the USA. Dennett explains how those work:

The inspiring insight here is the idea that all of life’s experiences, for all their variety, boil down to variations on a manageable number of stereotypic themes, paradigmatic scenarios – `frames’ in Minsky’s terms, ‘scripts’ in Schank’s.

An artificial agent with a well-stocked compendium of frames or scripts, appropriately linked to each other and to the impingements of the world via its perceptual organs, would face the world with an elaborate system of what might be called habits of attention and benign tendencies to leap to particular sorts of conclusions in particular sorts of circumstances. It would, `automatically’ pay attention to certain features in certain environments and assume that certain unexamined normal features of those environments were present. Concomitantly, it would be differentially alert to relevant divergences from the stereotypes it would always begin by `expecting’.

Simulations of fragments of such an agent’s encounters with its world reveal that in many situations it behaves quite felicitously and apparently naturally, and it is hard to say, of course, what the limits of this approach are.

There is one important problem: Kennanbot 2.0 only functions correctly when the USA operates in a matter consistent with his view of the world — and his bizarre and idiosyncratic stereotypes. When there is a discrepancy between the stereotypes and reality, the robot exhibits “preposterously counter-productive activities” that Dennett describes below:

Most obviously, while such systems perform creditably when the world co-operates with their stereotypes, and even with anticipated variations on them, when their worlds turn perverse, such systems typically cannot recover gracefully from the misanalyses they are led into. In fact, their behaviour in extremis looks for all the world like the preposterously counter-productive activities of insects betrayed by their rigid tropisms and other genetically hard-wired behavioural routines.

For example, here are some of those counter-productive activities:

His Pennsylvania farm providing inadequate refuge, Kennan even fantasizes about retreating to New Hampshire or Vermont to farmfantasies that, as the years pass, shift to ever more remote locales: Alaska, Norway, Antarctica. He is a relic of the nineteenth century, a misfit in modern times. The achievements of science, medicine, and technology leave him cold; he sees only the defilement of nature wrought by the automobile, and the corruption of the spirit brought on by consumer society, whose blight he laments with numbing frequency. (“With all due effort to avoid exaggerated pessimism and over-dramatization,” he writes, in a typical passage, from 1978, “I can see no salvation for the U.S. either in its external relations nor in the development of its life internally.”) From urban decay to the decline of the schools, from the media’s crass commercialism to sexual libertinism, he sees all about him a decadent societylate Romeoffering grounds only for hopelessness.

Here are some more:

It was the workhorse Nitze who had the nose for power, while the self-lacerating Kennan commented from the sidelines. Thompson perceptively writes, “Too fragile and easily hurt, he was like Chiron, the wise and immortal centaur of Greek mythology who is shot by an arrow and develops a wound that never heals.” Towards the end of their lives, however, Nitze and Kennan reconciled their differences as the Cold War’s end prompted Nitze to endorse the abolition of the weapons whose existence he had once done so much to promote.

In time, Kennanbot 2.0 is abandoned in favor of the newer, sexier Nitzebot. Kennanbot is later rediscovered by computer hipsters and venerated as the only real way to make a geopolitical robot. However, the hipsters cannot agree about whether or not to install OpenBSD or FreeBSD as Kennanbot’s onboard operating system, and they kill each other in an frenzy of computer hipster violence.

Millions of years later, humanity is extinct and intelligent aliens come to the wreck that was once Earth. A sleeping Kennanbot, still splattered with the blood of the computer hipsters, is the only proof that mankind once existed. The lead alien activates Kennanbot, and he proceeds — like clockwork — to spew a stream of invective about Africans, Chinese, Jews, women, hippies, corporate CEOS, and anyone else not named Kennanbot. In between Kennanbot talks about his strategy to contain the Soviet Union, but always returns to his plight of having to rely on the USA to accomplish such a task. The lead alien shrugs, watches Kennanbot gesticulate wildly, and then hits the “Off” button. Kennanbot shuts down for the last time, never to wake up again.

“Xorg, this planet was a waste of time. You said we’d find some intelligent life here. All we’ve found is a possible primitive ancestor of the people we hate on the Zendari Intergalactic Security Council. Let’s jump this rock and get some beer.”


The Tragedy of the Strategist

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

(by Adam Elkus)

Lynn Rees pitied the geopolitical nerd. I pity the modern strategist. This is my attempt at expanding on Rees’ entry, now that it is back up on the Interwebs. And by expand, I will do (in my own way), an post that idiomatically draws on the style and ideas of the old Committee of Public Safety blogs that Rees used to write. So why do I pity the strategist? I pity the strategist because of his or her futile rage against the very institutions they operate within, a rage that I’ve expounded on in various ways in other writings. I differ from Rees in that I argue that the strategist is very much a prisoner of their own expectations, and a lot of strategic debate amounts to a futile attempt to reverse what might even be regarded by intellectual adversaries as a sorry state of affairs.

A Division of Strategic Labor

In olden times, policy, strategy, and tactics were all embodied in a singular (to borrow a fairly evocative image of a favorite game of mine) person of lordly caliber. Everything — from the operations and maneuvers of individual combat units to the destiny of nations — could be glimpsed from his directed telescope and directed with his Marshal’s Baton. It was fun while it lasted. But the immense scale of modern warfare (even Mao didn’t do all of it himself) and the impact of specialization on Great Power strategy ruined this dynamic (note that none of this necessarily applies, say, to a guerrilla band or a tinpot dictatorship where George Clooney is currently or may in the future testify[ing] in Congress about)

Now there were also some big downsides to this Great Strategic Man (and every so often, Woman) idea. When we look back on history to tell the bedtime stories of Good Strategy (in contrast to our tales of Bad Strategy woes), we read selectively. If you have an Alexander as your Great Captain, then awesome. If you don’t — let’s say you are one of the Romans to get annihilated in Cannae — well, the incompetence of one man or woman dooms the entire enterprise. This business model could not scale well, and as warfare industrialized it acquired one characteristic of capitalism — specialization and cost-cutting. We no longer expect full-service at our local Chevron– we pump our own gas. We no longer deal with a single, heroic travel agent when making trips — we patch our itinerary together via a variety of social media apps. Strategy is no exception, and the “mechanical” bonds that once united the strategic community have been replaced by a more amorphous anomie. Of course, if Durkheim is right this is only a sign of our progression into the modern era.

Capitalism and industrialization have led to increasing specialization, and disrupted many old and venerable industries. And strategy is no exception to the market’s “creative destruction,” which has ruined everything from the mightiest of car makers to the crappiest of other automotive rent-seeking interests. Instead of the capital-S Strategist, riding on his white horse and looking fashionable in his tricorne hat or pickelhaube, responsibility for strategy was diffused to a group of people that we might crudely regard according to the following organizational schema:

  • Political leaders (“we ought to invade the People’s Republic of Bumf***kistan because of X, Y, and Z totally subjective reasons which I will dress up as somehow being of objective national interest — even if I know in the back of my head that an non-subjective definition of the national interest is a fantasy of naive realists. Oh, and you strategy folks can get this done before the electoral cycle, amirite?”)
  • Strategic planners (“How many tanks, aircraft, nukes, etc do we need to overcome the Bumf**kistani army? How can we develop strategic options for the invasion? Do we have an exit plan? Do we even have a Grand Strategy (TM) for this? And who knows whether we’ll need an even Grander Than Grand Strategy? Wait, you aren’t going to actually listen to my Sound Strategic Suggestions? DON’T YOU KNOW THAT TACTICS WITHOUT STRATEGY IS THE NOISE BEFORE DEFEAT?!?!?! SUN TZU SAID IT, HE’S ANCIENT, WISE, AND SH*T! YOU WOULDN’T DISREGARD WHAT YODA SAID TO LUKE, RIGHT??? YOU NEED STRATEGISTS LIKE ME, MY MANAGEMENT HANDBOOK SAID SO!!! JUST BECAUSE I HAVE NO ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR IMPLEMENTING ANY OF MY AMBITIOUS IDEAS DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN JUST IGNORE THEM!!! *starts to cry profusely and retreats to the War Room to sulk and play a game with WOPR*.”
  • Strategic executors (“OK, I’ve set up the joint HQ at CENTCOM. I am in charge of a multinational army, much of which the Political Leaders bribed to help us invade Bumf**istan. I actually have to make this thing work. Oh and by the way, everything you other dudes say must be processed through my impenetrable, buzzword-laden jargon and doctrine that I cast as holy writ. I’ve created an impenetrable tree fort called Operational Art, and no one with cooties is allowed in! Don’t try – I’ll just knock down the ladder and throw rocks at you while you climb up the tree.”)

“Strategy” is in large part the result of whatever Political Leader needs to do to stay in power (the Bumf**istanis have just beheaded an American live on TV, the Leader has just been caught in bed with an unpaid intern, and the American public doesn’t care as long as the median voter preference is preserved). Yet this dream must be made into strategic reality. Thus, the Strategic Planner needs to develop an ambitious and far-reaching (yet also narrow-minded) scheme in isolation from the Political Leader’s actual motivations and concerns (in fact, the plan has been developed perhaps 10 years ago as a CONPLAN, and dusted off/decorated with some new stickers and decals for the present occasion). Finally,  the Strategic Executor can, well, actually try to implement the chaotic mishmash he or she has to work with on the ground. Often times they may just chuck the whole thing overboard and say they will use Design or some other doohickey to “frame the problem” in a manner that they are actually familiar with, regardless of necessity or utility. “You see, Sir, you shouldn’t be disregarding this option I came up with. It was crafted using My-Own-Assumption-Based-Planning, the latest in military planning methodologies! So what if it magically happens to be completely favorable to the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines/Delta Force/Rainbow Six/TF 141′s organizational biases and interests?”

I am painting with extremely broad strokes, but it is fair to say that this does describe the broad parameters of the Strategic Division of Labor in Modern Society. Even if Danny Steed plausibly argues that it does not necessitate failure, this is not to say that this is a salve for the problem that strategists face. They once ran everything now they are split into three squabbling groups.

The Glorious Socialist Workers’ Struggle Against the Capitalist Running Dogs (Aka, Politicians)

The strategist, like a Russian ultranationalist, has dim memories of the glory that once was Mother Strategica.  These hazy memories add even more pain to the unfortunate reality of the Motherland’s current state. The capitalist imperialists have taken over and torn down the giant bust of Napoleon in Strategy Square. The city once called Strategygrad has now been renamed back to its original ancien regime era moniker. And worse yet — they, the once proud siloviki of strategy, have been reduced to vulgar technicians building the latest and greatest Strategy Widget for the heathen capitalist that has no appreciation for their unique talent and the cause of Sound Strategy (TM) they fought so hard to serve. Instead of one strategist Having It All, the strategist now supplies his or her Strategy Widgets to the Political Leader. Every day, he or she toils in the Strategy Factory, unable to own the means of production or benefit from the fruit of their own labor. They labor and labor to make Strategies for the Boss, and the Boss gets all of the credit for said strategies. If strategic labor is converted into political currency, that currency goes entirely into the Boss’s coffers.

So, what is a comrade to do once he or she is alienated from their labor? Marxian theory catalogs several potential responses:

0. The opium of the masses.  Strategists withdraw into their art and fetishize it with a religious fervor. There is a One True Strategy, and one day — after some cataclysm they perpetually warn of due to impure blasphemies of “idealists” and “tacticians,” the believers will be raptured into Strategy Heaven, the unbelievers will undergo a Great and Terrible Tribulation, and the forces of Strategy and Idealism/Tactical Fixation/Etc Etc will do battle (it’s strategy, what else would they do?) at Megiddo.

1. Commodity fetishism:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. …

The “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” descend upon Strategic Man or Woman. They fetishize strategy, treating it as an object with inherent value as opposed to a product of social relations between things, in the same way fetishes in cults endow lifeless objects with human properties. They ignore Marx’s warning that a commodity has no inherent value beyond social and economic relations, treating the value of Strategy writ large and any strategy they produced as inherent and obvious:

As Marx explains, “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things” (164-65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165).

Strategy has no value beyond what it does for the policy. That policy might entail exploitation and alienation of the strategist, but that’s inherent in the labor relationship. The Political Leader owns the means of production. He can hire and fire strategists as need be, as he can depend on an endless supply of ambitious men and women with an interest in producing Strategy Widgets, whether drawn from the crowd of Kennan Otakus that cosplay as the Mr. X article at Comic-Con every year or military strategists whose military expertise can be portrayed (sotto voice) as a so-called “threat to civilian control” if they should as much dare to disagree with the Political Leader in public.

2. Collective action. The worker, through some combination of organization, threat, sit-ins, and other assertions of power, (or, to be more idiomatic, a “process of dialogue and negotiation“), the strategist can negotiate better working conditions and perks. Yet who is to guarantee these arrangements will persist? Much of 20th century American labor gains eroded in the intervening decades. From the worker’s perspective, this amounts to nothing less than a counterrevolution, an putsch from above. That very well be the case, but it is also important to note that one of the many reasons for this outcome was that the multi-national corporation and the post-WWII economic recovery of the rest of the world rendered arrangements gained through collective bargaining outmoded. Look at the US auto industry, for example.

Much as some idealize the post-WWII period of American labor relations and employment, many strategists (said Kennan Otakus) idealize a better, gentler time when there was  happiness and mutual understanding between Strategists and an enlightened boss. Every Strategist wasn’t just a cog in the Strategy Factory — they could live in a nice Strategy House, drive a Strategy Car, and go to work in their Pickehaulbe/Flannel Suit combo. They felt like their work had meaning. Perhaps they, like the stereotypical Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, had deeper or more existential concerns, but their material lot was (on surface) good enough to focus their attentions on “Meaning of Life” and “Why Are Those Damn Teenagers Sharing Milkshakes, Necking, and Riding Around on Motorcycles”-esque problems and questions.

Much like the aggrieved Michael Douglas in Falling Down, some react to the loss of their privileges with aggression. But instead of Douglas’ semi-automatic enabled shooting rampage, they react to this state of affairs with a fusillade of purely verbal ammunition. They’ll call their political masters flimflam men, neocons, neolibs, idealists, corrupt products of the military-industrial complex, and even beat up on political scientists too busy writing R/Python code to listen to their nonstop whining and whinging about why In the Ye Olde Days Security Studies Was Done Via Abacus and Dead Prussian Quotations. But while at least Douglas’s aggrieved former defense contractor caused enough trouble to taken become a media sensation and a police target, the Strategist is more yapping chihuahua than Big Dog. The Political Leader will withhold treats,  tug on the leash and say “bad doggy” in front of the press, or take our chihuahua-like Strategist to Cesar the Dog Whisperer  until the Strategist is fully domesticated from yapping chihuahua to purse puppy. The Strategist will go on to write an aggrieved tell-all memoir (“if they only listened to me, we would have won”) once they conclude their miserable stint in government or leak vindictively to reporters that will enable their vanity and self-serving comments in exchange for pageviews. But what, if anything, does it matter?

At the heart of the aggressive response is the idea that – as in a cliche Western or police movie — the Strategist throwing his Strategy Tools or Strategy Badge into the river and declaring “I quit!” is a meaningful moral statement that will shock the “corrupt” town the Sheriff has come to save into recognition of his sacrifice and value. In reality, the Strategist is only useful inasmuch as his or her departure in protest aids the opposition party’s attempt to portray the Political Leader as feckless in his or her dismissal of expert advice. Beyond that, it is fair to ask what difference it will make — the Political Leader may just replace the Strategist with another Strategist put on an even tighter leash, further centralizing control of strategy among the Political Leader’s immediate subordinates.

3. Gramscian Hegemony/CultureJamming/etc. While this may paint a hopeless picture, the Strategist is not without options. In theory, the oppressed Strategists, through development of their own “organic intellectuals,” can wage a “war of position” to break the hold of cultural hegemony that maintains the current base and superstructure. Over the long term, they will create the conditions for the revolutionary class struggle in which Strategists will finally overthrow the hated superclass that oppresses them. One does not necessarily have to take a Gramscian interpretation of this as much as acknowledge a general, well, strategy that hews to the following maxims:

  • Politics is war by other means.
  • Only through the political and cultural field can the Class Struggle be won.
  • We will seek to raise the consciousness of Strategists everywhere and build solidarity among them. It does not matter if they work for the Army, Navy, Marines, NSC, or a Think-Tank. A Strategist is a Strategist.
  • We will utilize the principle of Repressive Tolerance — the beliefs of our enemies must not be tolerated. Disagreement with us is not just difference of opinion — it is truly hate speech, oppressive in its own right. To disagree with us is to Not Have a Strategy, or even worse, to practice Tactics exclusively.
  • When the time is right, and Strategists have overcome the forces of counter-reaction, the revolution will truly begin. In the People’s Republic of Strategika, everyone must honor the great icons of the people (insert War College curriculum favorite/structural IR realist/hilariously over-idealized Cold Warrior here) and all Class Enemies will be punished for their crimes and oppression of the Strategist/re-educated to see the situation with Realism and Sound Strategy.

Unfortunately, like real cultural Marxists, this strategy is undone by the “nation of rebels” issue. Counterculture easily becomes consumer culture. Today’s edgy, consciousness-raising strategic critique is tomorrow’s establishment bromide. And Political Leaders depend on a steady stream of edgy but ephemeral fads to maintain novelty. The Strategist may start out as a tattooed punk rocker, but will end up as a businessman in pin stripes helping The Man do as he pleases.

To go back to my Mother Strategika analogy, the core problem here has much to do with the expectations of strategists themselves. Both Russia hawks and Russia doves seem –in their own way — to agree that the US made a mess of things in Russia after the Cold War, although policy prescriptions differ. Similarly, anyone with a heart sympathizes with the plight of the suddenly (well, given that the Alexander/Napoleon model dominated up to late 1800s, “suddenly” is correct) deskilled, depowered, and divided Strategist. But Revolution — barring some Seven Days in May-esque military coup that many Strategists themselves would never desire in a million years or a horrific catastrophe that suddenly forces re-prioritiation of the Strategist class’ privileges– will likely not be televised, tweeted, Tumblr’d, Instagram’d, or Facebook-picture tagged. Why?

Please Don’t Hate Me Because I Have Political Power, Baby

Only Notorious B.I.G’s song “Playa Hater” can express the sheer degree of disregard the Political Leader has for yet another bitter Strategist with a parable about why it was all better in Bismarck or Kennan’s day:

Playa (hata’), turn your head ’round (turn your head ’round)
Lay on the ground, you’ve been robbed
Wake up (wake up), open the door (open the door)
Lay on the floor, you’ve been robbed ….

Playa (hata’), turn your head round
Take off that crown, you’ve been robbed
Wake up, open the door
Don’t cry no more, you’ve been robbed ….

You see, there are two kind of people in the world today
We have, the playaz, and we have, the playa haters
Please don’t hate me because I’m beautiful baby ..

Hear what they talk, about me
But my crew so deep, you can’t do a damn thing to me

Now, I did not completely pull that analogy out of nowhere. Rap is replete with entertainment figures mocking the specter of the “player hater” or the backpack-clad “mad rapper” still in his basement putting out mixtape after mixtape of “real hip hip” that no one actually listens to. In this view, saying it was all good back in Kennan’s day is just as irrelevant as idealization of boom-bap rap, the time when Chuck D and Public Enemy were cutting-edge artists, or back when people preferred Reasonable Doubt to Drake. No matter of pleading will convince everyone to trade in whatever newest rap gear they wear for a Beastie Boys-like outfit, and no amount of pleading will suddenly make pickelhaubes and tricorne hats hot again. And, like a player hater driven mad by the knowledge that a hated rap figure’s deep-rolling and heavily armed entourage will turn him into Swiss cheese if he ever tries something in the club, the Strategist similarly is a victim of his own impotence. He or she cannot do a thing to the Political Leader, who rolls with an even deeper and more heavily armed entourage (although one wonders if Jay-Z has better protection than POTUS these days).

So, like another group of frustrated intellectuals, the Strategists are “caught between capitalist reality and their own frustrated aspirations.” 


Strategists are more interested in telling what the Boss what he or she should like, how or she should think, and what the Boss — above all else – should buy. To be blunt, the Strategist wants the Boss to share his own policy preferences, so the Strategist can, well, Strategize as he or she pleases. The Strategist wants to own the means of production and the fruits of his or her labor. To combine another set of unwieldy metaphors, the Strategist wants a magical unicorn flying over a frozen Hell with the aid of a winged pig.  Needles to say, maybe they’ll get the winged pig at best — but not the unicorn (they need the horn to break through newly frozen Hell’s ice). And even the winged pig looks kinda shaky.

At heart, though I agree very much with Lynn’s tragedy of the geopolitical nerd, it would be uncharitable to not point out that the titular Nerd — like Rousseau’s Man in the State of Nature — is perhaps unhinged because he sits at great remove from his natural habitat. He would prefer, like the siloviki of Russia preferred after the end of the USSR, a return to the good old days. Specifically, he would prefer to dictate policy, strategy, and tactics. That way no element of “ends, ways, and means” would be out of sync, all of it would be at his fingertips. If he didn’t like the policy, well, he made the policy! So he could change it.

The Strategist today is an impotent, rage-driven figure that complains, complains, and complains in the hope that whatever subjective policy idea they want is identified as objectively — and strategically — the “right” thing to do and they are put to work making (in a self licking strategic ice cream cone) a set of strategy and tactics for said policy. Perhaps they could start to consider the idea that it may be less costly to accept that change has occurred. It might even be, well, strategic.

And if they are not willing to accept this reality, it isn’t Clausewitz that will help them. It’s Schmitt or Lenin, because the Strategist’s narrow and dogmatic insistence on his or her own unique policy preferences, strategic visions, etc can only by forced on an body politic that rejects them through the usage of propaganda and coercion that changes what Marxists dub the “correlation of forces.” If that’s the job, well, we’ve gone truly beyond strategy into what our frustrated Strategist (ironically) hates the most — politics.


On IS ecumenism? Two tweets in short order REDUX

Monday, September 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- among jihadist groups in Syria, are the scales tipping towards unity or disunity? ]



Yesterday I posted the following DoubleQuote, with sources, on our alternate site while Zenpundit proper, this place, was temporarily down:

SPEC clint watts & guardian


  • Clint Watts, tweet
  • Clint Watts, Did Obama Just Unify America’s Enemies?
  • Guardian, tweet
  • Guardian, Isis reconciles with al-Qaida group as Syria air strikes continue
  • I noted that Clint Watts published September 26, The Guardian confirmed his point on 28 September.

    And I asked:

    Unforseen .. really? .. consequences?


    Since that time, other respected analysts have commented on the idea of an IS / Jabhat al-Nusra rapprochement:

    SPEC Zelin & Lister


  • Aaron Zelin, tweet
  • Charles Lister, tweet
  • I am still of the opinion that foreseeing unforeseen consequences is of the essence of successful strategy and policy-making — that wisdom comes from insight, foresight, the roots of which are by their nature holistic, cross-dsiciplinary, and systems dynamic.


    As for myself — irony alert — ecumenist, romantic, hearkener back to a glorious past that I am, I can’t resist already-ancient images such as the one at the head of this post, or this one:

    ISIS and Jabhat w Harakat Sham al-Islam

    The image atop this post is taken from Pieter van Ostayen‘s blog, A strategic mistake ~ ISIS beheads a member of Harakat Ahrar as-Sham of November 13 last year. He comments, cautiously:

    Here is picture from a while ago, the Syrian Islamic Front, Jabhat an-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sh?m (ISIS) posing as brothers in arms.

    The question is how long that will last. Since a few weeks the amount of anti-ISIS propaganda is in a steep rise; this all culminated when al-Jazeera published an audio file by Dr. Ayman az-Zaw?hir?…

    The image below is from another van Ostayen post, Some Calligraphic Group Logos ~ Syria, from March 10th of this year.

    Van Ostayen identifies the flag in the middle as that of Harakat Sham al-Islam, flanked by the flags and fighters of ISIS and Jabhat an-Nusra.

    In a post dated December 22 2013 on Joshua LandisSyria Comment blog titled Moroccan ex-Guantánamo Detainee Mohammed Mizouz Identified In Syria, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes of his version of the same image:

    Now I have identified another Moroccan ex-Guantanamo detainee: Mohammed Mizouz, going under the alias of Abu al-Izz al-Muhajir. He appeared only many hours ago in a video where he makes a speech on the necessity for the unity of the mujahideen, appearing alongside fighters from both Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Latakia.

    In his caption, Al-Tamimi identifies his version as a “Screenshot of video of Abu al-Izz al-Muhajir’s speech. He is in the center under the Harakat Sham al-Islam flag with the Qur’an directly in front of him.”


    It is of the nature of trees to branch, and humans do much the same: we too are a fissiparous species.


    Infinity Journal on the Strategy of Operation Protective Edge

    Thursday, September 18th, 2014

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

    Infinity Journal has an exclusive review up of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge campaign against HAMAS by LTC Ron Tira. Colonel Tira is the author of The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness.

    Operation Protective Edge: Ends, Ways, Means and the Distinctive Context  (Free registration required)

    ….Much of Hamas’ history has been spent under Iranian foster parenthood, even though Iranians are Shiites and Hamas is a member of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. But, in 2011, the outbreak of the civil war in Syria presented the relations with an impossible test: Iran backed the Alawite (non-Sunni) Syrian regime in its bloody war against the rebels – many of whom are theological and ethnic brothers of Hamas. Hamas had to break ties with the Shiites.

    Luckily for Hamas, in November 2011 the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s parliamentary elections and, subsequently, Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president. An improved replacement for Iran was found. But on July 2013, the Egyptian army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new military rulers of Egypt regard the Muslim Brotherhood as their archenemy – Hamas included.

    Running out of options, Hamas looked to its nemesis Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a last financial and political resort. After years of disengagement – following the brutal killing of Fatah personnel in Gaza in 2007-8, the Hamas take-over of Gaza and divorce from the PA-run West Bank – Hamas eventually approached the PA and in April 2014 signed the Palestinian Unity Agreement. “Show me the money” demanded Hamas as the ink dried; yet the PA declined to finance Hamas-run Gaza.

    With almost no allies and a financial inability to run Gaza or pay salaries, Hamas was at the brink of collapse. From its perspective, it experienced a near-existential threat. From Hamas’ side of the hill, it had no alternative but to fight its way out of the corner. This hardly resembled the context of the earlier Operation Pillar of Defense.

    Israel’s lack of clarity regarding this unique context was followed by a lack of clarity in defining the enemy. Was it Hamas’ military wing, its exiled political leadership, the organization as a whole, or the Gaza Strip as a de facto state? And in this distinct context, what were the relevant centers of gravity? Hamas’ offensive capabilities, its center of combatant mass and leadership in the inner neighborhoods of Gaza City, the nod between Gaza’s military leadership and Hamas’ political leadership in Qatar, or the popular support of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants? 

    Read the rest here.

    Tira has an astute appreciation for the disadvantages HAMAS labors under as a 4GW/Hybrid/Irregular/Whatever entity also trying to assume the panoply of prerogatives and obligations of a legitimate state.


    Manea Interviews General Zinni at SWJ

    Saturday, September 13th, 2014

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

    Octavian Manea, Small Wars Journal’s interviewer par excellence, talks with retired USMC General Anthony Zinni: 

    Reflections on the Modern Battlefield: A Discussion with General Anthony Zinni

    SWJ: You open your book with a blunt statement: “that wars are not always decided entirely on the battlefield”. Having in mind the post 9/11 decade, what are the other variables, the off the battlefield components that must be in sync in order to wage war successfully?

    General Zinni: I think that one of the things that are important off battlefield is the political context. Clausewitz said that a war is basically just an instrument of politics so you have to be clear why the decision has been made, what interests are being protected or promoted, what threats you are dealing with, and how significant are those threats to require the use of military force. The way you decide to approach it is also very important. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam we went in there to try to rebuild nations –  remodel governance systems, social programs and economic systems. Is this feasible, what is the cost? Do you have the support of the American people, of the international community for what you do? And how do you correlate the strategic and political goals? What do you want to achieve? Before that first soldier puts his boots on the ground you may have already created through all these decisions I mentioned the environment that helps him succeed or handicaps to a point failure. People, especially the Americans, when they look at these interventions look only on the battlefield to determine whether we succeed or fail by the performance of the military on the ground when there are so many other conditions and variables that go on off the battlefield – mainly at the level of political leadership, civilian and military leadership that could shape whether we are going to win or lose.

    SWJ: What does it take for the US to produce good civilian strategic leadership schooled in the Clausewitzian art of understanding that war is a political instrument and a political responsibility? What does it take to produce good civilian strategic leadership, more Marshalls, more Kennans?

    General Zinni: You hit the problem right on the head. We don’t put enough emphasis on the need for a strong and viable strategy. Often times we launch these interventions without an understanding of what the strategic goals are, what the approaches we are going to use are. Just look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part way through we declared mission accomplished, than it’s not, than we add more troops and the surge, we never understood how this is going to pan out in terms of the governance of Iraq, our future relationships and our sustained military presence. We were making it up as we went along. I would say the same thing happened in Afghanistan as happened in Vietnam. Without a clear strategy you have this problem. In our system every 4 years we turn over an administration. And we are fascinated with bringing in people outside Washington that desire to change Washington. The problem is that they come with no experience on the international scene or in understanding the implications in using the military. We don’t talk in terms of strategy, we talk in terms of military programs, we put budgets together, and provide funding. It is almost as if our political leadership sees no relationship between their political responsibilities and their military responsibilities. They miss Clausewitz’s most important point. War is a political act from start to finish. The political leadership, the policy developers and the operational commanders must be in sync. We should never fail to align policy, politics, strategy, operational design and the tactics in the field.

    All those things lead to not having the Marshalls that we need. One of the reasons that we were so successful in WWII and in the first decade after it because it set us up for success in the Cold War and we wanted people like Marshall and Kennan in the positions where they provided the strategic underpinnings that could think through what we needed to do. The greatest period in the US in terms of strategic thinking was the period from the WWII to 1950. We had the Marshall Plan, the 1947 National Security Act to restructure our government for a new world, we created the National Security Council, the Joint Chief of Staff, we developed the IMF, the containment doctrine and NATO. There was a whole series of things that we did in recognition that the world has changed as the result of the war. There were new threats, new conditions and it prepared us and set the stage to get us through almost 50 years of Cold War. When the Cold War ended none of that thinking went on. We were talking about peace dividends and new world order, but nobody was out there rethinking the strategy. We have a strategy and a government structure that hasn’t really been rethought and no one values developing and certainly putting into position people who could perform like a Marshall or like a Kennan and that is part of the problem.

    Read the rest here.

    An interesting passage.

    George Marshall’s strategic acumen was the product partly of having enjoyed a critically important WWI mentorship in France, followed by a career embedded with professional reading, reflection, discussion and then enacting and testing his ideas. George Kennan was the fortunate recipient of an Ivy League education (unusual for his background) followed by a brief State Department program to invest in young Foreign Service Officers to develop experts on the Soviet Union. Like Marshall, Kennan was also an autodidact who read, discussed and wrote seriously in his professional field the length of his very long life.

    That is how you develop professional strategists and General Zinni is right that we stopped doing it a long time ago. We are now living with the results.


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