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Is Strategy Dead?

Friday, May 1st, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

April 19th anniversaries & Hegghammer’s “terrorist culture”

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Thomas Hegghammer has an important new piece out, and today’s anniversaries offer an insight into why it’s important ]
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Waco OKC

upper panel: the end of the siege of Mt Carmel, Waco, TX, 19 April 1993
lower panel: aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, OKC, 19 April 1995

**

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place twenty years ago today. Defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh, who was execute for the atrocity, suggested to the court that the bombing took place on the date set for the execution of Richard Snell, who had earlier plotted to blow up the same building. From the Denver Post:

A white supremacist executed 12 hours after a bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building “was the driving force” behind a plot to bomb the building 12 years earlier, according to a government memo filed by Timothy McVeigh’s lawyers.

The report was filed in U.S. District Court as McVeigh’s attorneys attempted to bolster their appeal of his conviction and death sentence with arguments that people other than McVeigh may have been involved in the bombing.

Richard Wayne Snell was mad at the Internal Revenue Service in 1983 and wanted to blow up the Oklahoma City building as revenge for IRS agents raiding his home, Fort Smith-based federal prosecutor Steven Snyder told the FBI in June 1995.

April 19 1995 was also the second anniversary of the final holocaust in the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas. Mc Veigh himself told reporters Lou Michael and Dan Herbeck in a letter:

If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government … was a threat to me. Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.

Furthermore, in their book, American Terrorist, Michael and Herbeck report:

The date he chose for the bombing was significant in two ways. Not only was it the second anniversary of the Waco raid, just as important to McVeigh, April 19, 1995, was the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Corncord, the “shot heard ’round the world” that began the war between American patriots and their British oppressors. To McVeigh, this bombing was in the spirit of the patriots of the American Revolution, the stand of a mpodern radical patriot against an oppressive government.

**

I hope to put a post up in which I excerpt from and comment directly on Thomas Hegghammer‘s Wilkinson Memorial lecture shortly. I have been in internet hell recently, having difficulty accessing this site to edit and post, and given the date I thought it would be appropriate to post this first, however, as an example (to my mind) of what Hegghammer is talking about.

April 19 — today’s date — was triply significant to McVeigh, then, in a way that corresponds closely to Hegghammer’s definition of jihadi culture:

I define jihadi culture as products and practices that do more than fill the basic military needs of jihadi groups. This is very close to what the anthropologist Edmund Leach called “technically superfluous frills and decorations.” [ .. ]

Now think of a jihadi group. It has certain “basic needs”, such as the capacity to deploy violence and the ability to muster material resources. These needs can, conceivably, be fulfilled in a minimalist, no-frills fashion: you train, fight, raise funds, purchase weapons, write a communiqué, get some sleep, repeat the next day. To put it simply, these are the “functionally essential” elements of rebellion; everything else is culture.

The Oklahoma City bombing was held on a date that meant a great deal to Timothy McVeigh – in terms of Waco, in terms of the shot heard around the world – and on the very day of the execution of a noted white supremacist who had plotted to bomb the Murrah building, and who lived to see McVeigh destroy it shortly before he died.

Putting that another way, we can see the workings of a sort of poetic appropriateness – akin to “poetic justice” – from McVeigh’s point of view, in destroying the Murrah building on this particular day. The timing is not, in Hegghammer’s terms, “functionally essential” — it is cultural.

And what Leach called the “frills” and Hegghammer “culture” may be easily overlooked because the no-frills functional essentials seem at first glance more important –- but such things are not inessential to McVeigh, nor to Hegghammer’s jihadists who sing anasheed and write poems.

They’re essential – to the terrorists, and to our understanding of terrorism.

That’s why today is important – and Hegghammer’s lecture, likewise. I hope to return to a fuller exploration of his text as soon as my computer woes are ended.

Trolls not Elves: a Putinesque Christmas

Monday, March 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a factory for words — ugh! ]
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Troll factory

**

In American folklore, a Christmas elf is a diminutive creature (elf) that lives with Santa Claus in the North Pole and acts as his helper.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty has a fasacinating account in which One Professional Russian Troll Tells All. I’m gonna quote that piece extensively without putting it in blockquotes, since it has blockquotes, italics and illustrations of its own. Between the double asterisks immediately below and the double asterisks following them, then, you won’t find my words but those of RFE/RL, drawn in two gobbits from their piece.

Here’s the skinny on how it works, followed by the part that really caught my interest, dealing (obliquely) as it does with the Putin and the Patriarch theme.

**

RFE/RL: So what did your department do?

Burkhard: Our department commented on posts. Every city and village in Russia has its own municipal website with its own comments forum. People would write something on the forum — some kind of news — and our task was to comment on it. We did it by dividing into teams of three. One of us would be the “villain,” the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we’re doing. The other two enter into a debate with him — “No, you’re not right; everything here is totally correct.” One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link.

[ .. ]

RFE/RL: Does the Villain have a role in such assignments?
 
Burkhard:
If something is pro-Putin, the Villain will have doubts. For example, for Orthodox Christmas, Putin went to Mass at an ordinary village church outside Voronezh and there was sweetness and light all around. A story gets posted along the lines of, "How wonderful, how marvelous, how great, what an amazing man he is." But the Villain disagrees: "OK, come on, Putin went to Voronezh to boost his popularity with the public." To which we answer, "What's the matter with you, what popularity are you talking about? Yes, he's popular, but he doesn't need popularity, he just wants to meet with ordinary people." That's a funny example.

Next Assignment

Topic: Build a positive attitude toward the domestic policies of Vladimir Putin; the president personally celebrated Christmas with ordinary Russians.
 
Keywords: president rf, putin news, putin policies, christmas, vladimir putin
 
Again, the assignment begins with a post published on a LiveJournal account. The post about Putin is prefaced by a fragment from a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, "It's a sin to soar over a golden-domed chapel and not to pray in it," which in this context seems to take on a double meaning. 

Christmas unites!
 
The blessed holiday of the Nativity is upon us. And on such a miraculous day, which unites all citizens of Russia — no matter whether you're a believer or, as they say, "unchurched" — on the way to the Lord, the Russian president VP was, as always, with the people! Where else but in the provinces, far away from the urban hustle and bustle, is it possible to really experience this holy day? So this year Vladimir Putin visited the village church in honor of the Holy Virgin, located near Voronezh in the village of Otradnoye. And on such a holiday, one of the main holidays in Russia (and in the entire Christian church), at such a difficult time the president was with the people and congratulated all the clerics and faithful parishioners!

On the Barnaul forum, the Link Troll kicks things off with praise and a link to a December 31 vesti.ru article, Putin Congratulates Obama And Reminds Him Of The Principles Of Mutual Respect.

"Great article! By the way, the president of Russia, also congratulated the American president, the German chancellor, and other Western politicians on New Year's Eve. He's to be commended for expressing his peaceful intentions and conducting normal policy — something that's hard to get from Barack Obama."

The Villain Troll appears incensed:

"And what did you find that was so totally amazing in his Christmas message??? I don't understand!!! Vladimir Putin is an ordinary person!! So what if he's the president?? If I get on TV and wish everyone a nice Christmas, will you write a nice article about me too??? Finally we've found something to talk about!"

The Picture Troll posts a photo of Putin at the church and retorts:

"This is idiotic! Putin is our president. And it's really great that he went to a village church to congratulate everyone on the holiday. Christmas is a miracle. I envy the congregation. I would have loved to have been there on that great holiday."

.

Elsewhere, on the Yekaterinburg forum, the Villain Troll attacks Putin's Christmas appearance as a stunt aimed at distracting the public from the country's massive economic woes:

"Give your neighbor a sack of buckwheat this year!! Now that's a good deed!!! Vladimir Putin represents everything that awaits us in the future!! He just went to pray for his ass and ask for forgiveness. He's driven the country straight to hell, and now what can he do??? Pray, and that's it!"

The Picture Troll issues a stern reprimand, illustrated with a bucolic photo from the scene:

"Good lord, your language! Christmas is a blessed holiday, and here you are swearing. It's not worth it. There's enough buckwheat for everyone, our country will survive the anti-Russian sanctions, no problem. So I congratulate everyone on a blessed holiday and wish everyone peace and goodness. Especially YOU!"

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And thus the troika spends the day sweeping through 35 forums. 

**

Oh, well — or Ah, hell:

SPEC social media manipulation UK US

Sources:

  • British army creates team of Facebook warriors
  • Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media
  • And as JM Berger and Jonathan Morgan have exhaustively documented, terrorists do it too.

    Déjà or not? Netanyahu in DC

    Monday, March 2nd, 2015

    [by Charles Cameron — this is all way off to the side of my pay-grade — can I say that? ]
    .

    A DoubleQuote: upper panel, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic; lower panel, Adam Silverman at Sic Semper Tyrannis:

    SPEC DQ Netanyahu Begin

    Silverman then quotes President Reagan, from his memoir, An American Life, p 415:

    I don’t like having representatives of a foreign country – any foreign country – trying to interfere in what I regarded as our domestic political process and the setting of our foreign policy.

    **

    Sources:

  • A Partial Accounting of the Damage Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel, upper panel
  • This Has Sort of Happened Before: Mr. Netanyahu’s Meshugana Mystery Tour, lower panel
  • Sunday surprise: sending the body to a watery grave

    Monday, February 16th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — I suppose this could be seen as my version of “kids these days just have no clue..” ]
    .

    Since I mistakenly posted this week’s intended Sunday surprise, Afterlife this side of everlasting, on Saturday, I’m continuing my depthful exploration of the burial practices of warlords, gangsters and the like with this post.

    SPEC DQ Kagemusha Magic City

    When the daimyo Takeda Shingen dies in Kurosawa‘s great movie, Kagemusha, his followers are obliged to keep his death a secret for three years, to ensure clan Takeda’s continuing security. Their daimyo has, however, also instructed them that he wishes to be buried in full armor in Lake Suwa, and his corpse is therefore placed in a large urn covered in rich cloth, and taken out by boat into the mist that hovers over the lake (upper image, above).. the boat then returning to shore minus its precious cargo. The explanation is given that a offering of sake has been made to the god of the lake, and the kagemusha or daimyo’s double continues the pretence that his lord is still alive…

    In the TV series Magic City, by contrast, the body of a minor gangster is first cut in pieces, then stuffed in an empty and rusty oil barrel which is welded shut, then dumped unceremoniously at sea (lower image); the oil drum is then shot repeatedly so it will sink, and left to do so — no offering to the gods, no requiem, and no luck, as the corpse and its barrel later turn up inauspiciously somewhere along Miami Beach.

    **

    If we are to endure mobsters and warlords, need I say how much I would prefer them to work within the classical Japanese esthetic?


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