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New E-Book from John Robb

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

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

I have been a long time fan of John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog for many years and strongly recommend his military theory book  Brave New War for anyone interested in changes in warfare in the 21st century.  If you have been following GG, you know that John’s interests have turned in recent years  from the destructive part of  Boyd’s strategic continuum (tactics-operations/grand tactics -strategy) more toward the constructive ( grand strategy – theme for vitality and growth) with increasing examination of economic, ethical, legal, cultural and moral dimensions of societal rule-sets.

John has a new E-Book out, first of a series, that lays out his thinking in this area and how we can fix what ails America.

The American Way

My new booklet, “The American Way” is now on Amazon.  

If you are wondering what is wrong with America.  This booklet provides a concise answer.  

Also, this booklet provides a way to get us back on a path towards economic progress.  

Be forewarned, this booklet is just the start.  I’ll have more concrete ways to do it in booklets to be released over the next three months.  


PS:  I’ve got a booklet on iWar coming out next month too.

John gave me a preview of the manuscript and I thoroughly endorse the direction in which he is going with The American Way. America’s economic and political problems and strategic dysfunction have epistemological and moral roots.


War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

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

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.


Guest Post: Stephanie Chenault Reviews Saving South Sudan

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Zen here – we would like to give a warm welcome to Stephanie Chenault, with her first guest post at ZP! :

[ by Stephanie Chenault]

“Violence and bloodshed can never have morally good results” – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

Saving South Sudan is an ambitious, multimedia event from “World’s Most Dangerous Places,” author Robert Young Pelton and master photographer/filmmaker Tim Freccia. VICE went big on Pelton’s quixotic journey with Nuer Lost Boy Machot Lap Thiep to “fix” South Sudan. The three enter the world’s newest nation, at a time of extreme crisis and bloodshed, creating a grand yarn with bold characters and high adventure set against sweeping, brutal savagery.

The story of South Sudan as viewed through a Western lens is unbelievably complex, but Pelton gives us an African perspective where the current crisis is demystified by those closest to it. South Sudan has plunged into another round of playground rivalry where the contested sandbox is the world’s newest country and the opponent’s bloody noses, busted lips and black eyes are dwarfed by the physical and emotional damage inflicted on its spectators.

Saving South Sudan gives us an intelligent summary of the history, religion, cultural anthropological aspects, militarism, oil economy and “baksheesh-ocracy” that makes South Sudan tick. Serious students of the subject are encouraged to consider all of these facets while reading / viewing this oeuvre: No actions are promoted, no outcomes are predicted- and this is how it should be. This is Africa.

Pelton’s 130 page print piece and 40 min documentary grants the viewer unparalleled access into an Africa where there are no orange sunsets framed by acacia trees. A place where war is irregular, ferocious and unpredictable. In THIS Africa even the “rebel leader” bristles at being identified as such. In an earnest conversation, ousted Vice President Dr Riek Machar relays his desire isn’t to incite violence but to have a seat at the table in order to discuss options and opportunities to end the conflict. Pelton takes the filter off: behind the rhetoric, the violence continues in real time and we know that securing a seat at the table and successful negotiations (see recent media reports) bear little impact on the battle for oil on the ground. If fighting has indeed ceased, most roving bands have yet to receive the memo.

I can’t exit this review without mentioning the main reason to take the time to get briefed on the region through Pelton’s Saving South Sudan. The human touch interviews with the rulers, rebels and raconteurs would be reason enough. So would Freccia’s breathtaking portraits of the people, landscape and conflict. But taking you along this expedition is Machot- an affable, handsome (still) young man and former lost boy. His story is one of sorrow, success, and optimism. His is perhaps the best lens of them all.

Finding the print issue of the magazine can be a challenge but distribution sites are posted at the Vice website. The entire article can be found here.

The “Saving South Sudan” world premiere documentary can be found on-demand here:


Stephanie Chenault is the COO of Venio Inc, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business which focus on plans, policy, architectures and problem-solving across the Department of Defense for multiple clients.


Seydlitz89: “The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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

Our Clausewitzian friend, Seydlitz89 commented on my recent post on politics and strategy and has a new one of his own that accurately frames a solution to the geopolitical disarray in which the United States finds itself today. Seydlitz89 asked for my comments so I will be making some where appropriate [ in regular text]:

The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy

by Seydlitz89


There are various definitions of strategy. Basically what I mean here is expressed by a simplified example from Homer. The ten unsuccessful years of the Greek seige of Troy was carried out by force driven by notions of being led by heros/exceptionalism resulting in failure. Compare that to the subsequent Trojan Horse strategy which is far more than a simple ruse. The Greeks are able to turn the Trojan’s own belief system/narrative against them, and the horse is taken into the city to strategic effect. Had the Greeks been able to conquer Troy with force and notions of exceptionalism alone, then strategy would have been unnecessary, but since they were not, strategy became a necessity.

This particular symbolism chosen by Seydlitz89, of Achilles vs. Odysseus representing antipodes in strategy – of brute power vs. metis – were themes in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies and Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and the question of relying more on force or stratagem echoes in many contexts of military history and diplomacy. The “heroic” comment is particularly interesting to me. Homer’s Greeks in the archaic period  lived in aristocratic societies that had replaced the petty monarchies of the Greek Dark Ages in which The Illiad was set, but predated the Greeks of the polis of classical antiquity with which most people are more familiar.  The highest value of the the archaic Greek aristocracy (and for many classical Greeks as well) was “Arete” – an epitome of excellence in spirit and action, a virtuous nobility of character.

The Trojan Horse is a turning point for the Greeks, as Seydlitz correctly notes.  While all the major leaders of the Greeks in The Illiad are presumed to have arete, the stress on individual action, like the unstoppable battle-madness of Achilles outside Troy, makes unified action difficult and gives rise to bitter quarrels over place and spoils. Adopting the strategy of the Trojan Horse legitimizes collective action in light of arete; this shift in the direction of metis and strategy morally reinforced the iron discipline required for the phalanx, which became common Greek military practice in the century or two after Homer. So much so that while classical Greeks  marveled at the prowess of the legendary Achilles, the death of Aristodemus at Plataea received a far more grudging recognition from the Spartans. Strategy trumped heroics in terms of arete.

Lets consider strategy as a complex concept of at least three distinct aspects: the first is political context and contingency; the second is dialogue supported by a coherent strategic narrative; and the third is the combined application of various sources of power to achieve an effect greater than the sum of those sources, that is strategic effect. If we combine these three aspects we can conceptualize a test of opposing wills interacting over time applying various moral and material resources within a specific political context. The environment they operate in is one of uncertainty, violence and danger adding to the friction of the entire sequence. The goal is imposing one’s will over that of the enemy, but for the whole complex interaction to be coherent, certain criteria have to be met. Is the political purpose attainable by military means? Are other forms of power more appropriate? Is the purpose worth the possible cost? Who is the enemy exactly? A modern state? A tribe? An ideology?

A good riff here.

If you don’t care to take the time to understand the context in which you propose to operate, if you are unwilling to make rational choices about allocating your sources of power, if you are unwilling to acknowledge who (or what) constitutes “the enemy”, then your strategic narrative will be incoherent, unpersuasive and your effects anything but strategic (unless perhaps we count a debacle as being “strategic”).  Asking what the political purpose of military force  being used is for, much less the probability of success, seems to be the questions the Beltway prefers to ignore rather than answer.

Following Clausewitz, war belongs to political relations, so the enemy is by nature a political one, representing a political community. What is the nature of this political community, is it cohesive or fragmented to the point that it is the foreign presence which actually calls it into being? Dialogue is the interaction of both sides, but narrative includes all audiences involved including the home front, the enemy population and neutral political communities. One can see here how the moral and material cohesion of the two or more political communities influences the number of audiences we are dealing with.

Seydlitz here has written a paragraph to which Col. John Boyd would readily assent. The moral position your use of force communicates matters greatly to a variety of audiences, particularly if your actions contradict your words and your strategic narrative. Boyd argued for a grand strategy that would “Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted” , a task made impossible when marrying hypocrisy to cruelty while boasting of our own virtues. It is hard to lose a popularity contest with a ghoulish, beheading, paramilitary cult of sociopathic fanatics, or a brutal movement of unlettered zealot hillmen who throw acid in the faces of women, but at times the United States government managed to do exactly that. If the current and previous administrations had run WWII, we’d have had half the people of occupied Europe weighing their chances with the SS.

So based on our conceptual model, we can deduce that strategy requires a clear and specific political context, you cannot have a strategy to simply remain the only superpower on earth, or engage against methods such as terrorism or extremism. All of these are simply too abstract to be engaged in any way by strategy since the political contexts are too broad or nonexistent. How could the lone superpower prepare against any conceivable challenge from any rising political community, let alone engage a method of violence, strategically?

Declaring that we were in “The War on Terrorism” was the American elite’s way of finessing two aspects of the conflict they found most disturbing – the inconvenient reality that two American allies, Saudi Arabia and especially Pakistan, had done much to create the radical jihad movement from which our enemy had come and the elite’s own enormous political and psychological revulsion at grappling with the enemy’s sincere religious motivations and claim to defend Islam.  Not being willing to identify your enemy, even to yourself, will make discerning his center of gravity rather tough. Nor will anyone be impressed with demonstration of moral cowardice in fearing to do so.

Maintaining your strategic position relative to others?  This is more of a political task to emphasize the fundamentals, especially economic growth and moral confidence in the legitimacy of the model we present to the world, that make up the various aspects of national power of which military force is but one. A society that is ill-governed, corrupt and enduring social decay might be relatively more powerful than others (for a time) but it is unlikely to use its advantages effectively, much less wisely or decisively.

Re-discovering strategy allows us to look more critically at both our recent wars in terms of political context. What was the political purpose which we expected to achieve by especially military means in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems to have been to remake both the Afghan and Iraqi political identities, since only that would have assured the success of the new governments we wished to impose.

From this perspective, not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also more recent possible US military action regarding Syria, Iran or in support of the current Ukrainian government are all astrategic. None of them are coherent in any of the three aspects I have introduced

Complete agreement. The Bush administration based its claim to strategy on a narrow worldview of preemptive unilateralism, while the Obama administration has appointees who actively promote anti-strategic/astrategic models of national security decision making and disdain strategy altogether.

To illustrate this, let’s quickly consider Iraq. Iraq was initially portrayed as a looming threat. Operations commenced in 2002, although for some reason US and coalition air activity over Iraq was uniquely not considered military action. In the following spring, the country was quickly overrun, but the political purpose of imposing a new Iraqi political identity (as symbolized by the white, blue and yellow flag they were expected to adopt) was quite radical requirring sustained and extensive US moral and material support. An Iraqi resistance movement quickly spread with the US leadership caught by surprise. No strategy went into the planning of this campaign, instead it was based on a preference on organized violence linked with ideological assumptions regarding the market system as well as US exceptionalism.
What we have experienced since 9/11 is not strategy, but the collapse of strategy as a coherent concept in US policy formulation producing a series of astrategic spasoms involving organized violence but to no US strategic effect. Instead we only have the aftereffects, the knock off of the corruption of these events contributing to a dissolution of US political standing in the world.

“Collapse” is an apt description.

Let us be clear that the supreme responsibility for this cognitive, cultural and moral collapse lies with the self-congratulatory, bipartisan elite, inside and out of the executive and legislative branches. They make policy that the military strives to carry out, they craft the strategic narrative or refuse to do so and they decide whether or not to focus on strategy and the exigencies of war or their ideological trivialities, they set the national moral example of careerism and brazen efforts to game the system for the personal enrichment of their relatives and cronies.

They are failing us and have been doing so for nearly a quarter-century.


Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

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

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.


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