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Pete Turner on “Collecting Instability”

Friday, June 12th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Collection Center Collects Instability

Pete Turner of The Break it Down Show had a powerful post that encapsulated what is wrong with the American approach to intervention in foreign societies, both in terms of our aid and development programs as well as COIN and military assistance of various kinds.

Collection Center Collects Instability 

….A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.  

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Read the whole post here.

Turner wore many different hats in Iraq and Afghanistan but in one extended tour in Zabul, Pete worked closely with political science Professor Richard Ledet, who in addition to his scholarly expertise, was uncannily good at donning local attire and blending in with Afghan villagers.

Dr. Richard Ledet

Turner and his partner Jon, interviewed Ledet recently on their program:

What happens when an institution attempts to make changes intending to improve the lot of others? What if they ignore culture and fail to communicate with the people designed to receive a benefit from the change? We address these questions in ourepisode with Dr. Richard Ledet.

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

Listen to the interview here on The Break it Down Show.

Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:


First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .


Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.


There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Cognitive Tools for Creative Thinking

Friday, May 15th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

It has been some time since I have touched upon this topic. Recently though, I initiated a discussion at work on ways to enhance and stimulate creativity and  creative thinking and presented a suite of methods for generating and refining ideas. I didn’t get into the insight-based aspects of creativity, nor the high-level kinds of synthesis you see with people who have genuine mastery over a field or domain. My focus was more on developing people’s ability to think divergently, generate or recognize novel ideas and then refine or develop them.

Therefore, many of these are active, intentional exercises or strategies. They tend to be productive but their creativity is not quite the same as what is produced, say, when a skilled musician is “jamming”, an inventor is tinkering or a painter or scientist is experimenting in the “flow“.  The following are also not an exhaustive list:

Creative Problem Solving (CPS)

Developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes, CPS seeks to harness Divergent and Convergent thinking in a holistic, multi-step, learning process. In essence, the students are sequentially alternating between Generating ideas and Focusing on refining, evaluating, applying them until the “problem” is solved. This is one of the older models of instilling creative thinking and has been widely used, particularly for well-defined or technical problems.

Edward DeBono Lateral Thinking Exercises

DeBono developed a system of forced choice and association exercises that are well suited to promoting critical and creative thinking at the same time as students address a concept or activity. Lateral Thinking exercises lend themselves naturally to being made into graphic organizers or as leading questions in class or group discussion. Some examples:

PMI – “Plus, Minus, Interesting”                             OPV – “Other People’s Views    

ADI – “Agreement, Disagreement, Irrelevant”  APC – “Alternatives, Possibilities, Choices”

EBS – “Examine Both Sides”                                      CAF – “Consider All Factors”

HVLV – “High Value, Low Value”                             AGO – “Aims, Goals, Objectives”

TEC – “Target, Explore, Conclude”                          PISCO – “Purpose, Input, Solutions, Choice”

Related to Lateral Thinking, but not the same, is Horizontal Thinking. While the former are concrete exercises, horizontal thinking is using a familiar area of knowledge to look for analogies and patterns in less or unfamiliar fields. Both Lateral and Horizontal thinking differ from the traditional model of analytical-reductionist Vertical Thinking associated with critical thinking done within a subject matter field. Vertical thinking and Lateral/Horizontal thinking complement one another




Variations on “Brainstorming

We all have used brainstorming. There are some ways to make brainstorming more productive.

Ideational Pools – Ask a series of open-ended questions to a group that creates a much richer, single “pool” of ideas than simple brainstorming

Uses, Instances, Similarities – this is usually about a physical object and the purpose is to generate as many alternatives as possible – i.e. “How many different uses can you think of for a piece of rope?”. It is both divergent and lateral thinking as an activity.

Synectics – Extends brainstorming by taking the results and developing metaphors, similes, metonymy/synedoche that describe/explain them

Group Roles (or stages)

  1. Generator: Comes up with ideas
  2. Conceptualizer: Organizes, categorizes, renames ideas
  3. Optimizer: Refines ideas with a view to action – the “How”
  4. Implementor Takes action


Morphological Synthesis

Morphological synthesis works through decomposition and forced association, There are several variations but it works best with well-defined problems. Examples.

  1. Define the problem or identify a thing. List all of the attributes.
  2. Combine and re-configure attributes in new ways


  1. Divide problem into parts
  2. Develop a solution for each part
  3. Combine solutions


Critical Question Mapping

A system of fast learning, developed by friend of ZP Dr. Terry Barnhart, discovers the “what” of a situation by having everyone brainstorm all of the critical questions that must be answered to find a solution. No declarative statements may be made, only questions asked. After the group has exhausted the potential questions, the questions can be organized into clusters, a learning strategy, divided for research, etc.


Scenario Exercises

The use of imaginative but realistic premises for a thought experiment and discussion. Popular in the fields of futurism, alternative history and physics, they allow the students to explore reasons behind making decisions, constructing hypothetical, framing problems or as an allegorical experience before exploring the real situation or problem. Scenarios come in different forms and draw on both critical and creative thinking:

Counterfactual: Ex- “What if the South won the Civil War?”

Futurist: Ex- Imagine a world entering a new ice age – how would Illinois ecosystems be impacted by the climate change?”

Physical: Ex- “Schrodinger’s Cat”

Paradoxical: Ex – “Could a man travel through time and kill his own grandfather? Could you drown in the fountain of eternal life?”



Juxtaposing opposing or incompatible authoritative views to encourage synthesis or reflective choice. This is a favorite technique of Charles Cameron in his Hipbone method of analysis that he employs regularly here at ZP.



Moral Reasoning

Like Scenarios, moral reasoning and ethical dilemmas push people to think both creatively and critically. Example:

“A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree?”

Many ethical dilemmas and student solutions can be analyzed according to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development but the value for creative thinking is in creating the conditions of a forced choice requiring a resolution.



What techniques do you use for creativity?



Saturday, May 9th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” Anatol Lieven

Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi

Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a chapter, is being launched today at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. Published by Penguin-Random House, Warlords, inc. was the brainchild of Dr. Noah Raford, who recruited an impressive group of experts, journalists, scholars and futurists to analyze and anticipate emergent security trends and irregular warfare among non-state actors, including terrorists, hackers, insurgents, sectarians and corporations.  With a foreword by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the list of authors include:

William Barnes
Daniel Biro
James Bosworth
Nils Gilman
Jesse Goldhammer
Daniel S. Gressang
Vinay Gupta
Paul Hilder
Graham Leicester
Sam Logan
Noah Raford
Tuesday Reitano
Mark Safranski
John P. Sullivan
Peter Taylor
Hardin Tibbs
Andrew Trabulsi
Shlok Vaidya
Steven Weber

As editor, Andrew Trabulsi did a heroic job herding cats in editing this substantial volume and keeping all of the authors and project on track and on time. Warlords, inc. is available May 12 on Amazon and will be at Barnes & Noble and Target as well. Excited and proud to be part of this endeavor!

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.

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