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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.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be able to comment on such a classic work of strategic thought in such a forum as this.  I thank Mark/zen for this opportunity and hope that I am able to do justice to this subject.

I approach Thucydides’s work from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. The book can be seen as perhaps the earliest attempt in Western literature to come up with a theory of grand strategy.  There is a lot to be said for this approach.  If we consider that Clausewitz’s general theory of war could be part of a larger general theory of strategy, or grand strategy, then a relationship between the two classic works, that is Clausewitz’s On War and Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War becomes clear.

This could come across as questionable for many, since at first glance the two books are quite different.  Clausewitz discusses various types of theory in his book providing military historical examples to make his point.  Thucydides gives a detailed history of a specific conflict from various perspectives; provides a intricate view of political relations, including narratives of the time.  Raymond Aron came up with an interesting comment on the two authors which puts these distinctions within a common context:

It seems that we owe the great books on action to men of action whom fate deprived of their crowning achievement, men who arrived at a subtle blend of engagement and detachment which left them capable of recognising the constraints and shackles of the soldier or the politician and also capable of looking from outside, not indifferently but calmly, at the irony of fate and the unforeseeable play of forces that no will can control.  Philosophy presents an image of pessimism.  For what, may one ask, makes victories precarious and the state unstable?  Whoever devotes himself to the state chooses to build sandcastles.  There remains for him only the hope  of Thucydides or that of Clausewitz: “My ambition was to write a book which could not be forgotten after two or three years, but which could be taken up several times when required by those who take an interest in this subject.”   Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, p 12.

Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War offers various points for consideration from a Clausewitzian perspective.  The conflict is rooted in the political relations of the various communities involved (see “War is an Act of Human Intercourse”, Book II, Chapter 3).  Sparta initially uses a Strategy of Annihilation, whereas Athens a Strategy of Attrition, to use Hans Delbrück’s terminology.  Both sides display various stages and types of moral and material cohesion which varies as the conflict progresses.  All three of these would warrant comment from this perspective, but there is an additional aspect which I intend to introduce here and deal with in future posts.  This is the concept of strategic narrative.

One of the advantages of Clausewitz’s general theory of war is that it is compatible with a wide range of other strategic thought which is not limited to the military.  Such different (non-military) thinkers as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King approached social action and community perceptions from a distinctly Clausewitzian outlook.  All would understand the importance of strategic narrative.

In his book, War From the Ground Up, Emile Simpson not only defines strategic narrative, but links it to Clausewitz:

‘Strategic narrative’ is a contemporary term, but is a formalisation of a concept that has been present in all conflicts.  Strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.  It can usually be detected chronologically before conflict starts, in some form, as the explanation for participation in, or initiation of, the conflict; strategic narrative also operates as the explanation of actions during and after conflict.

Strategy seeks to relate actions to policy.  A policy outcome is ultimately an impression upon an audience.  It can be a physical impression, which in war would typically be defined in terms of death and destruction.  It can simultaneously be a psychological impression, typically defined in terms of an evolution in political alignment, not necessarily by consent.  For strategy to connect actions to policy it must therefore invest them with a great meaning in relation to its audiences, both prospectively and retrospectively. page 179-180.

This narrative should be realised in a coherent set of actions which give it expression . . . strategic narrative is not just concerned with audiences exterior to one’s side, or coalition.  One of the key functions is to achieve unity of effort, ideally to give coherent expression to that side’s will, as Carl von Clausewitz would put it.  page 182.

A strategic narrative that is seen as incoherent or contradictory by the various audiences, or becomes incoherent over time, will obviously fail in its purpose.

James Boyd White (“the other Boyd”) devotes an entire chapter to Thucydides in his When Words Lose Their Meaning.  The tight fit between the speeches provided by Thucydides throughout The Peloponnesian War and the strategic narrative then in effect act as an indicator of how these various strategic narratives develop or decay over time.  The words also act as reflections of the loss of moral and material cohesion within the various political communities depicted as the war progresses.  Boyd White describes accurately Thucydides world as related in Book 1:

. . . this was a highly structured world, rich in resources for argument and action.  The very fact that the cities could jockey for position as they did, each seeking to place the other in the wrong, shows that they operated on terms established by a shard and comprehensible discourse and that each was acting in part for an audience, internal or external, who would use that discourse to judge what it did.  Thucydides now gives us the opportunity to learn something about the nature of that discourse, for at this moment Corcyra sends a delegation to Athens to ask for an alliance, and Corinth sends a representative to resist them.  Thucydides presents their speeches in considerable detail.

This is a highly literary moment, of which we can ask: Of all the things that might be said here, what will the speakers choose to say? How will they try to persuade the Athenians to do what they want them to?  To what values will they appeal, for example?  What pleas, what charges, what veiled or explicit threats or promises, will they make?  Will they call on the gods, on compassion or justice, or on tradition of the law?  Will they appeal to the Athenians’ economic or military self-interest, and if so how will they define these things?  Or will they appeal to the Athenians’ sense of their own character, say, as virtuous or brave or generous, and how will they do that?  In what terms will they tell their stories?  page 62

Book 1 fittingly ends with Pericles’s speech to the Athenians (1.140-144), where he lays out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.  He accurately depicts Athens’s advantage at the onset and rightly fears the potential blunders of his own side over the strengths and strategy of the enemy.  Given her position among the Greeks, Athens has no choice but to fight.

On to Book 2.

Downward Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?

Friday, October 21st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a thoroughly impertinent riff on that saying of von Moltke ]
.

Hw many places could this sentence be applied to?

But the latest attacks, which appear to have been several months in the preparation, threaten to draw the entire population into a downward spiral of deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns by the security forces and toxic relations between local communities and the authorities.

It happens to come from an article about the Rohingya, Richard Horsey‘s Reality bites for Aung San Suu Kyi amid surging violence from the Nikkei Asian Review.

But how many other places might such a sentence apply to?

I ask this because we tend to focus on certain words in a sentence like this: attacks, preparation, threat, population, deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns, security forces, local communities, the authorities. Those are the forces in play, if you will. But their play follows the rules of a certain game, and that game is also named in the sentence.

Its name is downward spiral.

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vatican-spiralSpiral staircase, the Vatican, Rome

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What I want to suggests that we might learn a great deal if we shifted our attention from attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest, and thought about spiral.

Spiral is the form that the attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest — here and in those other places — takes, and as such it’s an archetype that underlies them, not just among the Rohingya, their Buddhist compatriots and Aung San Suu Kyi, but across the globe and through time itself.

Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?

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If, as I suppose, von Moltke can be translated as saying, “no operating concept survives contact,” it would seem we may need to conceptualize contact, ie the complexity of relations, rather than operations, which are far more focused on us — how we “will prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars” — than on conflict and wars, both of which are minimally two-party affairs.

And I’m not trying to say anything so terribly new here, just to give fresh phrasing to Paul Van Riper‘s comment:

What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.

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sintra-castle-spiral-credit-joe-daniel-price-740x492Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal, credit Joe Daniel Price

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The sentence immediately preceding the one from the Nikkei Asia article I quoted above will hopefully illuminate hope in a pretty desperate situation:

The majority of this community and its religious leaders continue to eschew violence.

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Image sources:

  • Both spiral images from the Top 10 Spiral Architecture page

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