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T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

Is Strategy Dead?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

Analysis, and the question of trust

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — who was taught to think of “longer term” as extending to our children of the seventh generation ]
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Here’s the problem:

Nicole Kidman as analyst Dr Julia  Kelly in DreamWorks SKG's first movie, The Peacemaker

Nicole Kidman as analyst Dr Julia Kelly gets an order in DreamWorks SKG’s movie, The Peacemaker

**

In the Introduction to Cyber Analogies (Feb 2014, 133 pp., Emily Goldman & John Arquilla, eds) we read:

The project was conceived and carried out to help very senior, busy, responsible people understand topics and issues that are fast-moving and dynamic, and have potentially great consequences for society, security, and world affairs.

I’m never quite sure that “very senior, busy, responsible people” are the right people to task with understanding “topics and issues that are fast-moving and dynamic, and have potentially great consequences for society, security, and world affairs.”

Ahem.

Do I qualify as a heretic yet?

I feel some kinship here with Pundita‘s recent comment:

I venture there are too many Grand Master chess players in America’s defense/diplo establishment and not enough ping pong players.

And the estimated number of exposures varies, I know — but how far would you trust the “very senior, busy, responsible people” who, we now know [1, 2, 3], covered up our poison gas casualties in Iraq?

**

At the expense of strategic analysis..

I’m thinking about all this because there’s a shift under way in intel circles, as described in the recently issued Report of the Congressionally-directed 9/11 Review Commission, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century:

Once deployed to the field, many of these analysts have been embedded in operational squads in the field, though their work favors support to tactical and case work at the expense of strategic analysis. The FBI launched a more structured Integrated Curriculum Initiative (ICI) in 2014, with the primary goal to develop a comprehensive basic training program for new agents and analysts that teaches them to operate in a threat-based, intelligence-driven, operationally-focused environment.

More explicitly, Scott Shane wrote in C.I.A. Officers and F.B.I. Agents, Meet Your New Partner: The Analyst:

Some people who study intelligence and counterterrorism are concerned that the pendulum could swing too far. Intelligence analysts, said Amy Zegart, a Stanford scholar who studies intelligence, could become too consumed by daily operations and neglect strategic thinking about threats that could be years away.

At the C.I.A., she said, counterterrorism analysts are already “too tactical,” focused on the next drone target. If the same model is now applied to the rest of the agency’s work, other analysts, too, could be caught up in short-term demands, she said. “Who in the U.S. government,” she asked, “is going to be thinking about longer-term threats?”

Longer-term? You mean, longer than the current electoral cycle?

Infinity Journal’s New Issue

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

 

Our arch-Clausewitzian friends at Infinity Journal have a new issue out, featuring articles by Colin Gray, Antulio Echevarria and Spyridon Plakoudas.  A sample, from Colin Gray:

Strategy and Security

There can be little disagreement with the proposition that security is a basic human need and therefore has to be of fundamental importance to the high business of state. But it can be almost embarrassing to ask seriously what it is. If a simple and straightforward answer to the question about its nature is hard to obtain, one is right to ask sceptical questions in follow-up mode that may reveal a troublesome void in official thinking. In addition to desiring to know just what security is, and therefore also (logically) is not, we would like to know how we buy it; indeed, can we buy it? From whom or what do we buy security? Is there a usable common currency to meet security concerns? And, probably most important of all, how will we know that we have bought it successfully and therefore should judge ourselves to be sufficiently secure?

As scholars we cannot evade the elementary question, ‘how do we study security in order better to understand it’? To be blunt, what do we study with respect to security? You will discover readily enough that this basic question is not answered in the current literature and debate and you may well begin to suspect it is not answerable. This is the quite unremarkable reason why, over many years, I have refused the title of professor of Security Studies, and have resisted as best I could occasional institutional efforts to associate me with a Centre or Institute for Security Studies. The problem is not that the concept of security lacks meaning, but rather that it carries too much meaning that is thoroughly undisciplined. Alas, there is excellent reason for this unhappy condition. What we have in the concept of security is a boundary-free, not merely-‘lite’, idea. And this potent idea is overflowing with meaning to everyone, both individually and collectively. If I want to study security, what does that imply? What either does or might promote insecurity? I suggest that security is a feeling measurable by human and institutional agents on little reliable empirical basis. And even if we can agree on potentially relevant facts, it is very likely that we would disagree on what the verifiable facts mean. This is a reality disturbing to many people; frank recognition that security/insecurity is a feeling and therefore is liable to influence by personality and mood swing chemistry and consideration of circumstances, but scarcely at all reliably by empirical data.

The beginning of wisdom on security is understanding that the concept is so generously inclusive as to be boundary-free. This is both fortunate and unfortunate. It is good news because it is prudent to be inclusive regarding what we should worry about. But it is bad news because the pervasive subjectivity that reigns over and within security debate means in practice that the sponginess of the concept, together with its positive public acceptance, renders it utterly open to abuse by politicians and other would-be opinion influencers. Alas, because security is about everything that does or might worry us, as a consequence it is really about nothing usable with prudence.[i]

Particular geopolitical or other metrics of potential alarm are not hard to invent for any state, but the problem is that they will lack integrity, even when they are developed honestly. Again, what can tell you how secure you really are? Indeed, is security an either/or condition, or is it a matter of more or less? Obviously, indeed unarguably, security is an important, perhaps the most important, concept in statecraft, but it is unmanageable. Can I measure national security and show it in a graph. I may be compelled to admit that at one time, when I was much younger, and therefore more credulous, I used to attempt to do this metric miracle with regard to the strategic nuclear forces of the United States. But, some greater wisdom did come with age. [….]

Read the rest here

So: how does it feel at World’s End?

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on conveying the experience of the eschatological — on the way to better understanding the allure of IS ]
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Beatus de Facunda. And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit" -- Revelation 9.1-11

And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit

**

WE ARE ENTERING PHASE TWO:

I think we’re entering Phase Two of our conversations about Islamist eschatology.

In Phase One, the task was to point out that apocalyptic scriptures and scriptural interpretations were a feature of Al-Qaida discourse, and specifically used in recruitment, and this phase was necessary because apocalyptic movements, in general, are all too easily dismissed by the secular mind until “too late” — think Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe.

With GEN Dempsey declaring that IS holds an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, with Graeme Wood describing that vision in a breakthrough article in The Atlantic, with Jessica Stern and JM Berger making the same point forcefully in their ISIS: The State of Terror, and with Will McCants promising us a book specifically about the eschatological dimension of IS, that need may now have passed.

In my view, the salient points to be made in Phase Two are:

  • that the apocalyptic ideology of IS has strategic implications
  • that there’s a largely and unwisely ignored area of religious studies dealing specifically with eschatological violence, and
  • that the sense of living in eschatological time is viscerally different — I’ve termed it a “force multiplier”
  • In particular, IS strategy is likely to draw in part on the specifically eschatological last hundred pages in Abu Musab al-Suri‘s 1600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As I noted in my review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam, Filiu himself states there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While Filiu devotes several pages to it, Jim Lacey ignores it completely in his A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto, commenting only, “Where appropriate, we have also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding these beliefs” — see my review of Lacey for the Air force Research Institute.

    I’ll deal with the religious studies literature on violent apocalyptic movements in a future post.

    This post is my first attempt at addressing the feeling engendered by being swept up in an “end times’ movement. I foresee this as my major upcoming area of interest and future contributions.

    **

    SUGGESTED CONTEXTS:

    There’s an extraordinary paragraph in Seduction of the Spirit by Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian, in which he tells us what the world’s next great encyclopedic work on religion might be like — using the analogy of Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica in a decidedly post-psychedelic age:

    Thus the next Summa might consist not of a thousand chapters but of a thousand alternative states of being, held together not by a glued binding but by the fact that all thousand are equally real.

    Imagine what kind of world it would be if instead of merely tolerating or studying them, one could actually be, temporarily at least, a Sioux brave seeing an ordeal vision, a neolithic hunter prostrate before the sacred fire, a Krishna lovingly ravishing a woodsful of goat girls, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun caught up in ecstatic prayer, a prophet touched by flame to go release a captive people…

    Religious experience is as wide, and in fact as wild as that, and the lives and world views of a Black Elk, a Teresa of Avila, an incarnation of Vishnu and an Isaiah are as different as cultures can be, united only in the degree of their focus. Cox can list them, he can invite us to consider their experiences in turn, but he cannot entirely bring us into each of their lives. Between them and his readers is a distance not only of cultural imagination, but of conviction, of tremendous passion.

    **

    In Fiction as the Essence of War, George Vlachonikolis wrote on War on the Rocks recently:

    Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like? Especially if they can’t find a moral?” This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience. As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinnerpartyfriendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

    Stern & Berger, on page 2 of their book, ISIS: The State of Terrorism, write:

    It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women toether, with the later victims force to watch the irst die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, pile out of the vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving ogg scot-free.

    Some things are just hard to explain in a way that viscerally grips the reader, engendering rich and deep understanding.

    The power of religion is one of them, and that’s true a fortiori of the power of its extreme form, that of those who are “semiotically aroused” — in Richard Landes‘ very useful term — by the power of an “end times” vision.

    **

    I have quoted the first paragraph of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars, often enough already, and I’ll quote it again for shock value — I don’t think it’s the sort of analogy that can be “proven” or “refuted”, but it gives a visceral sense of the importance of identifying an Islamist jihadist apocalyptic movement as such, and understanding what that implies:

    Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

    And Richard Landes in Fatal Attraction: The Shared Antichrist of the Global Progressive Left and Jihad gives us a sense of how an apocalyptic undercurrent works:

    It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.

    **

    A FIRST APPROXIMATION:

    Let me take a first stab at indicating — by analogy — the level of passion involved:

    Cox writes of prophecy, Sylvia Plath of electroshock treatment. In her poem, The Hanging Man:

    By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
    I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

    And her description of the same experience in her novel The Bell Jar is no less, perhaps even more powerful — note also the “end times” reference:

    I shut my eyes.

    There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

    Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

    Let me suggest to you:

    Many IS members feel they have been shaken “like the end of the world” and live and breathe in “an air crackling with blue light”.

    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    The illustration at the head of this post is one of many from The Beatus of Facundus, itself one of many brilliantly illustrated versions of Beatus of Liebana‘s commentary on Revelation. I was first exposed to Beatus by an article Umberto Eco wrote for FMR magazine. Eco also mentions the Beatus in Name of the Rose, and indeed wrote a most desirable book on the topic.


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