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Strategy and Prometheus Unbound

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Senior Counselor to the President and Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon has been very much in the news lately, as one might expect of a former Breitbart editor turned closest adviser to the President of the United States. Much of this has been political fare by friends and foes (ok, mostly foes). We have read debates about his ideological worldview, the exact nature of Bannon’s (and Breitbart’s)  ties to the sinister Alt-Right, his rank in the White House pecking order, Bannon’s vision of realignment of American politics, populism, ethnonationalism, executive orders, the books he reads and so on. Charles has already weighed in here but I am not delving into these things today.

Less attention, though usually also accompanied by outrage, have been stories on foreign policy and national security. Nevertheless, the media gave wide play to Bannon’s comments about potential war with China, possible civilizational partnership with Putin’s Russia and most notably, Bannon being given a permanent invitation to meetings of the Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council. Most Democrats and many national security professionals believed Bannon, as a political adviser,  had no business being seated on the NSC by historical standards. While this is true, it is not a very credible argument in light of the previous administration’s decision to make a mere campaign speechwriter with no prior experience an unusually powerful Deputy National Security Adviser.

I think the criticisms based on customary protocol arguments miss the mark by a country mile.

We are all familiar with the ancient Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus. It was Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought”, who defied the gods to give Man the gift of fire – a gift that unleashed the immense creative powers of mankind. For this affront to the gods’ authority, Prometheus was severely punished. Zeus binds Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where an eagle tears out his liver each day. A torment Prometheus endures for ages until the coming of Hercules.

Strategy in American national security is much like Prometheus. Potentially useful as a creative force, sometimes employed like the gift of fire as a useful tool in a small way, most often inert, bound immobile to the rock of policy as politics savagely tears out the liver of anyone posing a strategy that might prevent a foreign policy crisis from becoming a debacle. The truth is that the gods, or in this case the established political class, much prefer a predictable and orderly debacle under their stewardship than a messy win for America with unpredictable second and third order effects.

In fairness, most of the time, stability while accruing small losses is preferable for a global hegemonic power like the United States to disruptively embarking upon large risks to its position in order to win small gains. So long as the international system is strategically designed to sustain hegemony, occasional losses can be a cost of doing business until the system or parts of it no longer appear to be working. Or until political support wanes at home.

The objection to Bannon (aside from his politics) is that a domestic political strategist should not be involved in the NSC. David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were not. Karl Rove wasn’t.  James Carville, Lee Atwater and innumerable other key political White House staffers never sat on the NSC. However, I don’t think Steve Bannon was invited to attend NSC Principal Committee meetings in that role. Nor was he “replacing” the DNI or CIA Director or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not “replaced” but as customary bureaucratic constraints on policy formulation they were intentionally removed.

I think Steve Bannon – whose prior professional efforts at a high level were all about creating and articulating a vision – is really the Trump administration’s grand strategist.

And he’s unbound.

 

 

New Article up at Divergent Options

Monday, January 16th, 2017

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

[…]

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Read the rest here.

It is the Nine Eleven Century

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Thomas Wade, long time ZP reader reminded me this morning of the post I wrote on the 10th anniversary of September 11. If anything the world has changed for the worse. Will we change course?

I don’t know.

The Nine Eleven Century?

nineleven2.jpg

Ten years ago to this day, almost to the hour of which I am writing, commercial jetliners were highjacked by al Qaida teams armed with boxcutters, under the direction of Mohammed Atta, were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, believed to be headed to the US Capitol building, crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers led by Todd Beamer heroically attempted to stop the highjackers. The whole world watched – most with horror but some with public glee – on live television as people jumped out of smoke-engulfed windows, holding hands, to their deaths. Then, the towers fell.

From this day flowed terrible consequences that are still unfolding like the rippling shockwave of a bomb.

We look back, sometimes on the History Channel or some other educational program, at the grainy, too fast moving, sepia motion pictures of the start of World War I. The crowds wildly cheered troops with strangely antiquarian uniforms that looked reminiscent of Napoleon’s day, march proudly off to the war that gave Europe the Somme, Gallipoli, Passchendaele and Verdun. And the Russian Revolution.

After the armistice, the victors had a brief chance to reset the geopolitical, strategic and economic patterns the war had wrought and in which they were enmeshed. The statesmen could not rise to that occasion, failing so badly that it was understood even at the time, by John Maynard Keynes and many others, that things were being made worse. World War I. became the historical template for the short but infinitely bloody 20th century of 1914-1991, which historians in future centuries may simply describe as “the long war” or a “civil war of western civilization”.

There is a serious danger, in my view, of September 11 becoming such a template for the 21st century and for the United States.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as we remember the fallen and the many members of the armed services of the United States who have served for ten years of war, heroically, at great sacrifice and seldom with complaint, we also need to recall that we should not move through history as sleepwalkers. We owe it to our veterans and to ourselves not to continue to blindly walk the path of the trajectory of 9/11, but to pause and reflect on what changes in the last ten years have been for the good and which require reassessment. Or repeal. To reassert ourselves, as Americans, as masters of our own destiny rather than reacting blindly to events while carelessly ceding more and more control over our lives and our livelihoods to the whims of others and a theatric quest for perfect security. America needs to regain the initiative, remember our strengths and do a much better job of minding the store at home.

The next ninety years being molded by the last ten is not a future I care to leave to my children. I can think of no better way to honor the dead and refute the current sense of decline than for America to collectively step back from immersion in moment by moment events and start to chart a course for the long term.

My latest fiction, aptly titled “No Clue”

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the lack of advance scheduling for black swans is a recurring theme for my futurizing self ]
.

August Cole — co-author with PW Singer of Ghost Fleet — just posted my most recent fiction at the Art of the Future site:

Charles Cameron’s “No Clue” is a finalist entry in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is a multiple finalist in past contests for his stories “News Enhancement In An Info Overloaded Age” and “War In Heaven.” Progenitor of the game Sembl, he can be found on Twitter @hipbonegamer and writing at Zenpundit.com.

My piece begins:

I shall lie quietly under the greensward by 2035, either oblivious, deep into my next incarnation, or something close to omniscient. Oblivion offers the near certainty of being right about the future, but lacks communications skills, so I won’t linger there. From the point of view of my next incarnation, finding myself once again a yak herder in Nepal — yaks haven’t changed much since my grandfather’s day, and his grandfather’s day before him – may I offer you a bowl of tsampa and butter tea? So that leaves us with semi- or quasi-omniscience.

Time — previously a Torah-like scroll with the far past rolled up and vanishing on the left just as the future unspools and becomes present, legible, then recent, on the right – is now laid out in all its simultaneity and glory in the Museum of Timeless Reality. Walking up and down it, noting the Art of Future Warfare challenge of 2016 and inquisitively visiting 2035 to see what unfolded over the timespan between them, I’m grateful for the tweaknology that permits me to select 2016 as my point of origin and observe in broad outline the probability tree across a 19 year spread from there.

**

August has very nicely presented my entry in the magazine-style issuu format, meaning that if you click below and bring it up to your appropriate viewing size, you can then flip through my 8 pages as though you were reading a magazine.

Kudos and thanks, August!

Enjoy!

Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017

wright-brothers-biographyserendipities

Paradisejssundertow

white horsewashington

 

The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?


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