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New Article at War on the Rocks

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

I have a new op-ed up this morning on the Crimean crisis over at War on the Rocks:

Let’s Slow Roll Any Move Toward Crimean War II:

One of the more curious implicit assumptions about the crisis in Ukraine is that the subsequent occupation of the Crimea by Russia represents some kind of triumph for President Vladimir Putin and a defeat for the United States. It is a weird, strategic myopia that comes from an unrealistic belief that the United States should be expected to have a granular level of political control over and responsibility for events on the entire planet. We don’t and never can but this kind of political megalomania leads first to poor analysis and then worse policies.

Far from being entitled to do a victory lap, Putin’s mishandling of Ukraine has dealt Moscow a strategic defeat. With artful bullying and a $15 billion bribe, Putin had pulled off a diplomatic coup by getting President Victor Yanukovych to reverse Ukraine’s nearly finalized deal with the European Union and align itself vaguely with Russia and Putin’s shabby League of Eurasian Dictators. This would have been a tremendous strategic win for Russia to have Ukraine with its rich resources and key geographic location not only well-disposed to Moscow, but as a compliant satellite. Much like Belarus, Ukraine would have been isolated from the West and dependent upon Russia.

….While Russia’s occupation of Crimea merits condemnation and pressure from the world community, including the EU and the United States, the rush in some quarters to make this crisis into a military standoff between Russia and NATO instead of focusing on measures to quickly stabilize the new pro-Western government in Kiev is ill-advised and strategically unwise….

Read the rest here

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Syria is Not Rwanda

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Anne-Marie Slaughter had a short but bombastic WaPo op-ed on Syria and chemical weapons use that requires comment:

Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria 

….The Clinton administration did not want to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda because the United States would have been legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene to stop the killing. The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

….But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

This is remarkably poorly reasoned advice from Dr. Slaughter that hopefully, President Obama will continue to ignore.
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The President, on the basis of advice very much in the spirit of this op-ed, drew a public “red-line” about chemical weapons use for Bashar Assad, or some variation of that, on six occasions, personally and through intermediaries. On the narrow point, Slaughter is correct that this action was ill-considered, in that the President wisely does not seem to have much of an appetite for jumping into the Syrian conflict. Bluffing needlessly is not a good practice in foreign policy simply to pacify domestic critics, but it is something presidents do from time to time. Maybe the POTUS arguably needs better foreign policy advisers, but doubling down by following through with some kind (Slaughter fails to specify) military intervention in Syria is not supported in this op-ed by anything beyond mere rhetoric.
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First, as bad as the Syrian civil war is in terms of casualties it does not remotely approximate the Rwandan Genocide in scale, moral clarity, military dynamics or characteristics of the major actors. This is a terrible analogy designed primarily to appeal to emotion in the uninformed. Syria is engaged in civil war, not genocide.
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Secondly, the “credibility” argument has been lifted by Slaughter from it’s Cold War historical context where the United States capacity to provide a nuclear umbrella and effective deterrent for allied states was tied to the perception of our political will to assume the appropriate risks, which in turn would help avoid escalation of any given conflict to WWIII. This psychological-political variable of “credibility” soon migrated from the realm of direct US-Soviet nuclear confrontation in Europe to all manner of minor disputes (ex. -Quemoy and Matsu, civil unrest in the Dominican Republic) and proxy wars. It was often misapplied in these circumstances and “credibility” assumed a much greater exigency in the minds of American statesmen than it it did in our Soviet adversaries or even our allies, to the point where American statecraft at the highest level was paralyzed by groupthink in dealing with the war in Vietnam. By 1968, even the French thought we were mad.
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Absent the superpower rivalry that kept the world near the brink of global thermonuclear war, “credibility” as understood by Johnson, Rusk, Nixon and Kissinger loses much of it’s impetus. If “credibility” is the only reason for significant US intervention in Syria it is being offered because there are no good, hardheaded, reasons based on interest that can pass a laugh test.
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The historical examples President Obama should heed in contemplating American intervention in Syria is not Rwanda, but Lebanon and Iraq.
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Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Another installment of Octavian Manea’s excellent COIN interview series at SWJ. This one focuses on social science and varieties of insurgency:

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency 

….OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

…..Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in. 

The last part is a curious lacuna.

The incompetence of the planning for the occupation of Iraq has been amply recorded – the high level disdain of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld for what befell the day after victory, the keeping of professional Arabists at arms length in preference for Beltway contractors and college kids with AEI connections, the haplessness of Jay Garner and the political obtuseness of Paul Bremer ad so on. This is not what I mean about lacuna.

I mean something more fundamental, in terms of understanding human nature as the root of political behavior and therefore political violence. We are all familiar with the Clausewitzian trinity (or should be) but less attention is paid to the motivational factors that make men decide to stand, fight and die or stand aside. Thucydides also had a trinity that did not attempt to capture the nature of war but rather explain why wars happened and it seems to me to be of particular use for evaluating the decision in small wars to pick up a gun or not, to side with the government or join the rebellion:

“Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the patriotism that we displayed at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest. 

Fear, honor and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart. All the more so in a defeated and broken country divided by ethnicity and sect where all parties were uneasily eyeing the conqueror. No special knowledge of Arab culture should have been required to anticipate that Iraqi men, if made desperate by uncertainty and circumstance, might have at least seen it in their interest to achieve some measure of security with the gun and to enact policies of carrots and sticks a priori to discourage that, before the insurgency gained critical mass.

Awareness of the universality of the Thucydidean trinity would not have in itself guaranteed success in Iraq but knowing it is a rudimentary minimum of political competence upon which you can at least build.

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The possible unexpected consequences of intervention

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- wondering whether it can ever be possible to expect the unexpected, and if so, what exactly that might mean? Libya & Mali ]
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Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog: Covering Politics and Religion in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa posted Libya and Mali, Part I today. The topic is one I am not qualified to comment on, although I’m trying to learn from those (such as AT) who are — but this sentence caught my eye and got me writing:

A failure to soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences of intervention and transition has helped chaos to develop in post-Qadhafi Libya.

I wonder if that’s a koan?

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Is it ever possible to “soberly consider the possible unexpected consequences” of anything? Consider Donald Rumsfeld‘s remark:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Throw in the missing fourth category, supplied by somebody for Wikipedia:

Moreover, one may criticize Rumsfeld statement for omitting the most dangerous type of unknown: the “unknown known”. That is, as Mark Twain famously expressed it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so”. Indeed, Rumsfeld was really discussing an “unknown known” which provided faulty justification for the war — members of the Bush administration claimed that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction (see Rationale_for_the_Iraq_War), but it just wasn’t so.

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Now allow for what you might call informed guess-work, what CS Peirce called abduction – I’m just now introducing my elder son to Eco & Sebeok‘s magnificent book, The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce — and “non-predictive” attempts to lay out a spread of possible outcomes by means of scenario-planning, as Tom Barnett wrote in his Year 2000 International Security Dimension Project Final Report:

By “decision scenario approach,” we mean using credible scenarios to create awareness among relevant decision-makers regarding the sort of strategic issues and choices they are likely to face if the more stressing pathways envisioned come to pass.

and:

Again, none of our material here is meant to be predictive in the sense of providing a step-by-step “cookbook” approach to Y2K and Millennial Date Change crisis management. Our fundamental goal in collecting and synthesizing this analysis is to avoid any situation where US military decision makers and/or operational commanders would find themselves in seemingly uncharted territory and declare, “I had no idea . . ..”

We (myself at times included) seem to be busily employed making non-predictive predictions.

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Black swansNassim Nicholas Taleb may have been the one who most recently crept up behind us and clapped loudly to alert us to the unexpected, but Stéphane Mallarmé was there first in 1897 with the great graphical poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, featured in the lower image of the pair at the top of this post.

My own “zen telegram” version, for those who neither know the poem nor read French:

A ROLL OF THE DICE

NEVER

not even when tossed sub specie aeternitatis from the depth of a shipwreck

WILL NEVER EVER ABOLISH

CHANCE

— now there’s a koan for our times — and always.

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Listen to the poets…

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees…

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Sources and links:

  • Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard from Wikipedia
  • le début de la typographie moderne by Étienne Mineur with page images
  • Un coup de dés, French original and English translation, by AS Kline

  • See that voice of the Bard, William Blake
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    Two Cheers for the State?

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

    An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

    The State Problem In National Security Policy

    ….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

    We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

    …. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

    ….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

    Very rich food for thought.

    Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

    Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960′s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

    In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.

     

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