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Red lines and the credibility arms race

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

“Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

  • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
  • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
  • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
  • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
  • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
  • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

When the president publicly drew his red line:

Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,’” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

…the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.

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Fair and balanced, eh?

Monday, January 21st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Guardian reporting on Gaza and Mali, weighed in the balance and found wanting? -- with Fox News for company ]
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I frankly don’t for a moment buy that Fox News is fair and balanced, but then I don’t know if any news source is, so let me try to be a little even-handed here myself, and take a gander at a couple of recent Guardian headlines, using my SPECS format to display them:

I’m not the first one to juxtapose these two headers — there’s a site called CiF Watch that monitors the Guardian (specifically) for signs of “antisemitism, and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy” and it brought these two Guardian posts together with the comments:

The contrasts in language, tone and narrative focus between a report by Harriet Sherwood on Israel’s November conflict with Hamas and a recent Guardian report on the French war against Islamists in Mali represent an exquisite illustration of the paper’s egregious double standards. …

In Sherwood’s report, the deaths of Palestinian children represent the overwhelming narrative focus. The fact that the IDF was attempting to target Hamas terrorists is only mentioned in the strap line, and even then is qualified with the word “believed”.

In the report by Hirsch and Hopkins, on the other hand, we are informed via the headline that militants are killed, while the deaths of Mali children are only noted at the end of the strap line.

On the one hand, I appreciate this kind of close reading as an analytic technique, while on the other I can’t really expect editors to check previous possibly comparable events to make sure their treatment of breaking news is immune from this kind of criticism.

That’s a quandary, IMO — but not yet a quagmire.

**

Forget the question of whether Fox News is more or less biased than the Guardian – or should I call them Faux News and the Grauniad? — and just think again about our passions, about how they can blind us, and about how that blindness can manifest in emphases, in choice of words or images — in so many conscious and unconscious ways.

We need to deploy considerable mindfulness if we are to explore, read, filter, balance and comprehend the world around us — with anything like the nuance required for making wise (rather than lop-sided) choices…

**

Sources:

  • Mali conflict: militants killed as French air strikes pound rebel camps, Jan. 13, 3012
  • Gaza: four children killed in single Israeli air strike, Nov. 18, 2012

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    Reading a partisan cartoon: the parable of a dog’s ears and teeth

    Friday, November 16th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- on the difficulties that may be posed when "reading" graphics ]
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    **

    The question I want to ask in this post is: how much can you safely read into a political cartoon?

    Here is the particular cartoon I have in mind:

    It was published in The Guardian (UK) yesterday, and as you may be able to see, it portrays Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a puppet-master, with British politicians Tony Blair and William Hague as his puppets, and was published to illustrate the cartoonist’s view of British reaction to the Gaza situation.

    How much can we read into it?

    **

    If you are used to seeing cartoons such as these —

    showing Khamenei pulling Ahmadinejad‘s strings and Petraeus as a puppet of GW Bush, when you come across the Netanyahu cartoon in the Guardian, you may well view it as another in a long series of political cartoons suggesting that someone is running someone else’s show behind the scenes. It’s the old idea of the eminence grise, in other words, expressed in cartoon form.

    **

    If, on the other hand, you’ve been exposed way too often to cartoons like these —

    the one portraying Churchill, FDR and Stalin as Jewish puppets, taken from a 1942 issue of the Nazi paper, Fliegende Blätter, or the one depicting McCain and Obama as Israeli puppets, taken from a 2008 issue of the Saudi paper, Al-Watan… you may well see the same cartoon in a very different — and distinctly antisemitic — light.

    **

    The last two graphics, at least, are extremely offensive, and I would like to offer another graphic here — one which also uses our “puppet master” theme — as a visual equivalent of offering a glass of water to cleanse the palate:

    I’ll be addressing this My Fair Lady poster from a very different angle, in a later post in my “form is insight” series — this one on “dolls within dolls”, the “world stage which we have dotted with stages of our own devising” and “turtles all the way down”…

    **

    Having hopefully reduced the emotional freight which some of the cartoons above must surely have carried with them, I would now like to offer you some background which seems relevant to me. Characteristically, perhaps, it comes from a very different field of knowledge.

    EC Zeeman‘s April 1976 article Catastrophe Theory in the Scientific American was my introduction to the mathematician Rene Thom’s remarkable body of work, an introduction which sailed mostly over my head — but one of Zeeman’s points, which he illustrated with the graphic below, made perfect sense to me.

    The annotation to this illustration read in part:

    If an angry dog is made more fearful, its mood follow* the trajectory ‘A’ on the control surface. The corresponding path on the behaviour surface moves to the left on the top sheet until it reaches the fold curve; the top sheet then vanishes, and the path must jump abruptly to the bottom sheet. Thus the dog abandons its attack and suddenly flees. Similarly, a frightened dog that is angered followes the trajectory ‘B’. The dog remains on the bottom sheet until that sheet disappears, then as it jumps to the top sheet it stops cowering and suddenly attacks.

    My translation:

    A dog that reaches the point where its ears are fully pinned back, indicating full-on fear, and its teeth are also fully bared, indicating full on rage, will behave differently depending on whether its fear level or its rage level was the first to be raised to “full”.

    Just as a dog’s reaction to a full on mix of rage and fear may depend on which stimulus came first, so — I am suggesting — our own reaction to the cartoon in question — inherently antisemitic, or merely critical of a particular Israeli operation — may depend on our previous exposure to cartoons, politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or antisemitism.

    **

    We now have several levels of ease or difficulty in reading graphics. The Zeeman graphics are hard to read because they’re too small to be legible — but put them in the context of Zeeman’s article, and view them full size as originally published, and the only problem might be in following Zeeman’s text, itself a popularization and simplification of Rene Thom‘s work.

    The Bart Simpson graphic is fairly straight forward, and regular viewers of the show would “read” it in line with hundreds of similar frames in which Bart writes repeated lines on a classroom chalkboard, from Season 1 episode 2′s “I will not waste chalk” to Season 23′s “There’s no proven link between raisins and boogers”.

    And then there’s the disputed Netanyahu graphic… which can be “read” differently, depending on what previous “puppet master” associations the viewer beings to the task. Here, it seems to me, the task of interpretation can be viewed in one of two ways: (i) as an exploration of how it is likely to be read, which I’m suggesting will depend on previous association, and (ii) as an exploration of what “must have been” in the cartoonist’s heart.

    **

    Assessing the cartoon’s probable impact on segments of the public is one thing — knowing what the cartoonist intended, even though we tend to conflate the two, is quite another. Not for nothing does St Paul in I Corinthians 2.11 ask (in my own translation)

    Who knows the qualities of a man but the spirit of that man within him?

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    Outrage Over News Corp: A Tale of Two Standards

    Monday, July 18th, 2011

    As a rule, I eschew political news here but I think this one merits an exception.

    The big story of the moment for political junkies is the illegal hacking of cell phones allegedly carried out by employees of one of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid newspapers. Not just any phones either, the cell phones of British VIPs, political bigwigs, celebrities and perhaps, some 9/11 victims. All of the details have not been revealed, but there are police investigations, one of News Corp’s top employees has been arrested, parliamentary inquiries and demands by Murdochs political enemies there to have the British government “dismantle his empire“.

    Rupert Murdoch is not, it must be said, a cuddly public figure. He is a press baron throwback to the era of Joseph Pulitizer and William Randolph Hearst and has a reputation for ruthlessness in business and overweening ambition in politics to gain personal influence for promoting his conservative views. He is a hate figure to Democratic and liberal partisans of the intolerant kind who see political disagreement as evidence of evil and would like FOXnews, one of Murdoch’s most influential and profitable properties, to be suppressed by the FCC (though Murdoch’s right-wing views did not preclude him from trying to cozy up to China’s communist leadership). These folks are naturally celebrating Murdoch’s dilemma and hoping for a collapse – and Murdoch and his son James are in genuine jeopardy, possibly legal, certainly political and commercial.

    Much indignant outrage is being heaped on Murdoch’s head now by the enlightened; I have no love for phone hacking and I definitely agree that and violating people’s privacy is a crime that ought to be punished by sending those responsible to prison. I am curious though, how this position is squared morally with the fact that the two liberal news outlets most triumphant about the News Corp scandal, The New York Times and The Guardian, themselves recently were knowing accessories to the much more serious crime of espionage.

    Actually calling these papers criminal accessories is not a full picture of their behavior during the Wikileaks document dump; it is more accurate to say that they reaped corporate financial benefit from facilitating espionage, grand theft and treason, for which their editors have not faced any legal consequences. 

    Yes, treason. Look up the definition.

    Much unlike the nobody Army private and patsy, Bradley Manning, who is likely to face a sentence of life in prison. Good thing for  Manning that he only outed a vast array of US intelligence and diplomatic secrets and exposed ordinary, unimportant, unprotected Afghans and Iraqis to murderous retribution by Islamist degenerates. If Manning had phonehacked a Labor MP or a wealthy, airhead celebrity – you know, really important and beautiful people - the NYT and the Guardian would be calling for a death sentence. It is a most curious scale of values.

    Go back and look at which partisan blowhards with columns and bylines and talking head opinion shapers thought Wikileaks was just great and defended Julian Assange and what their opinion is on phonehacking today and see if any – any at all – evidence some consistency. Or awareness of the relative magnitude of each crime – and crime is the right word, neither of these scandals are mere pranks, but one is important to national security and the other, so far, is only interesting.

    There’s something amiss here in the way that partisan politics and a seamy, not too subtle, undercurrent of class entitlement have warped the perspective and sense of proportion of some people who are smart enough to know better.

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    Friday, March 2nd, 2007

    A WORD FROM COLONEL KILCULLEN

    On very rare occasions, I reproduce a post from another blog in toto. After hearing from Dave Dilegge, editor of the Small Wars Journal, this is one of those times. The following was posted today at the SWJ Blog by Dr. Dave Kilcullen, an Australian lieutenant colonel, expert on irregular warfare, anthropologist and currently a special adviser on counterinsurgency to the Department of State. Kilcullen takes issue with reporting from The Guardian:

    “Guardian article misrepresents the advisers’ view

    Today’s Guardian article (“Military Chiefs Give US Six Months to Win Iraq War”) misrepresents the Baghdad advisers. So much so, it makes me doubt the reliability of the single, unidentified source responsible for much of the article’s reporting.

    I hope SWJ colleagues will forgive this more “personal” post than usual, but as Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser I have a duty to set the record straight on this.

    There is a real country called Iraq, where a real war is going on, with real progress but very real challenges. We are not going to “win the war” in six months — nor would anyone expect to. But the Guardian seems to be describing some completely different, (possibly mythical) country, and some imaginary group of harried and depressed advisers bearing no resemblance to reality. As counterinsurgency professionals, we take a fact-based approach and we are well aware of the extremely demanding task we face. That makes us cautious realists — but we are far from pessimists, as the Guardian’s anonymous source seems to imply.

    The article is littered with inaccuracies:

    • the “advisers” are not bunkered down in the Green Zone, but in another location, and frequently out on the ground.

    • the article (incorrectly) describes me as a serving military officer – I’m a civilian diplomat, as any source truly familiar with the team’s thinking would be well aware.

    • while recognizing the severity of the challenge, the team’s mood is far from pessimistic. Success will take months or years, not weeks or days, and although early signs are somewhat encouraging it’s really far too early to say how things will play out. The war has been going for four years, the new strategy for less than four weeks. Give it time.

    • the State department is not failing to meet its personnel targets. On the contrary, more than 90 % of civilian positions in Iraq are filled, and we will grow to 20 Provincial Reconstruction Teams soon.

    • the coalition is far from disintegrating – British redeployment from the South reflects improved security, not lack of will, and the same day the British announced their move the Australians announced a force increase in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

    • The plan is not “unclear” or “constantly changing” – we all know exactly what the plan is. The article seems to be mistaking the freedom and agility which have been granted to us, allowing us to respond dynamically to a dynamic situation, for vacillation.

    Yes, of course, there are still car bombings. But several recent bombings have been Sunni-on-Sunni, rather than sectarian, with extremists targeting moderates to discourage them from cooperating with the government. That means sectarian violence, overall, is down, and that extremists are worried they are losing support from their base – both good things, despite the appalling violence against innocents we have come to expect from these extremists.

    And yes, there is a risk that home-front political will might collapse just as we are getting things right on the ground. Given some commentators’ overall negativity, one suspects that their efforts may directed to precisely that end. You may not like the President, you may be unhappy about the war. But whose side are you on? The Iraqis trusted us, and this is their fight. They deserve our support.

    Buried in the article, though, are some references to real-world progress:

    • Progress has been made on oil-wealth sharing legislation – a major development
    • Joint operations are beginning in Baghdad, and are going well so far

    • Iraqi community leaders are reporting somewhat improved morale and public confidence among the civilian population, though this is tempered by previously unmet expectations

    • Numbers of political murders have fallen (precipitously) since the operation began, though these are still too high in absolute terms

    • Iraqi forces are turning up, and performing well, though not always at 100% strength

    • In al-Anbar, tribal leaders have realized extremists have nothing to offer them – a huge development, as influential community leaders have “flipped” from AQ’s side to support the Iraqi government

    • Regional diplomatic efforts, including with Iran and Syria, are apparently underway

    Unfortunately most of these developments are buried in the last paragraph of a long article.

    The Guardian is entitled to its own view of the war, and reasonable people can differ on these issues. But the Guardian’s view is not ours, and the anonymous source misrepresents our views. It is really too soon to tell how things will play out, though early signs are encouraging so far, and the advisers as a group remain cautious realists, not pessimists.”

    Well said.

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