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If You Can’t Go to the Mountain, Have the MountainRunner Go to You

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

After many years of  interaction in the blogosphere, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Matt Armstrong of the noted public diplomacy and information influence blog MountainRunner, at a suburban Chicago watering hole.  A lively discussion ensued in which Smith-Mundt legislation only made the briefest appearance. :)


More on Strategy

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Two posts worth your attention:

Gulliver at Inkspots continues the strategy convo between myself and Jason Fritz with a major post of extended commentary:

Let’s just be up front with each other: this is a really long rant about strategy 

….I’m willing to concede that the line between civilian and military reponsibilities in strategy formation and the associated operational planning is a blurry and unstable one, and that what I’ve laid out as the normative standard isn’t always the way things play out in reality. You certainly shouldn’t take anything I’ve written above as an exculpatory argument for our elected officials. But more on this a bit later.

As for our man Carl: Jason’s choice of Clausewitz quote is simultaneously interesting and surprising to me. Committed students of the sage will recognize it from perhaps the most remarked-upon pages of On War: Book Eight, Chapter 6B. (If it were an episode of ”Friends,” they’d call it The One With the Politics By Other Means.) The language Jason excerpted is from the 19th-century Graham translation; just for the purpose of clarity, let’s look at the somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version:

In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen. (606)This is a pretty difficult passage (especially as I present it here, mostly out of context) but I take it to mean that governments are little interested in ruminations on war’s escalatory momentum in the direction of its absolute form, but rather in how violence may be used to achieve concrete political goals. But the paradoxical reality is that addition of violence to politics – violence that is fueled in part by hatred and enmity, violence that is fundamental to war’s nature and sets it off as distinct from all other human activity – actually re-shapes the character of the political contest. War’s essential violence pressures the political contest to take on the character of a duel or a sporting event; without the harness of policy, war risks becoming a self-contained competition conducted according to its own rules, one where victory is not the mere accomplishment of political objectives but rather a revision of the relationship between the two competitors such that the victor is free to enact his preferences. 

The “high degree of uncertainty” that Clausewitz concedes is introduced “into the whole business” is produced by divergence between the things we do in war and the things they are meant to achieve. In limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy. To put it simply, shit gets crazy in war. [....] 

In a different strategic venue, Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner analyzes  The President’s National Framework for Strategic Communication (and Public Diplomacy) for 2012 :

It should be common knowledge that the “information consequences of policy ought always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted. This statement, from 1951, is reflected in Eisenhower’s dictum of the next year that “everything we say, everything we do, and everything we fail to say or do will have its impact in other lands.” It was understood then that words and deeds needed more than just synchronization: public opinion could be leveraged to support and further the execution of foreign policy.

What was true then is more so in a modern communication environment of empowerment. The interconnected systems of Now Media, spanning offline and online mediums, democratizes influence, and undermines traditional models of identity and allegiance as demands on assimilation fade as “hyphens” become commas. What emerges is a new marketplace for loyalty that bypasses traditional barriers of time, geography, authority, hierarchy, culture, and language. Information flows much faster; at times it is instantaneous, decreasing the time allowed to digest and comprehend the information, let alone respond to it. Further, information is now persistent, allowing for time-shifted consumption and reuse, for ill or for good. People too can travel the globe with greater ease and increased speed.

It is in this evolving environment that the President issued an updated “National Framework for Strategic Communication” for 2012 (3.8mb PDF, note: the PDF has been fixed and should be once again visible to all). This report updates the 2010 report issued last March that was little more than a narrative on how the Government was organized for strategic communication. The report is required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009.

Some highlights from the 2012 Framework: [....]


Google Ideas SAVE conference

Friday, July 8th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron -- cross-posted with brief intro from Alix Levine's blog -- topic: Google's Summit Against Violent Extremism ]


Google Ideas — the Google “think/do tank” — recently co-hosted (with the CFR and Tribeca Film festival) a conference on countering radical extremism in Dublin, with a mix of “former extremists, activists, academics, survivors, executives and public sector officials” in attendance.  Blog-friend Matt Armstrong was there, live-tweeting with enthusiasm. Dr William McCants of Jihadica and CNA wasn’t terribly impressed with the outcome, and posted at Foreign Policy:

I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem. Google Ideas’ summit has not increased my optimism, but its resources and potential do.

Alix Levine of Cronus Global attended the event, and reported back on her blog. I’ve commented briefly on McCants’ piece on FP, but wrote a longer piece as a comment on Alix’ blog, and am cross-posting it here in the hope that it will stir further discussion…

I’m comparing Will McCants‘ response to the Google Ideas conference on FP with yours, and I’m glad you wrote as you did.

McCants – whose work I generally admire — opens his comments by quoting Jared Cohen to the effect that the purpose of the conference was to “initiate a global conversation”. McCants then more or less dismisses the conference itself a couple paragraphs later with the words “If these are indeed the conclusions of the conference, Google Ideas needs more thinking and less doing in its approach”.

Conclusions? How does he get so quickly from “initiate” to “conclusions”?

Okay, we all know that a conference can lead to a volume of proceedings read mostly by the authors themselves and a few aspiring students eager to follow-my-leader and dead end there – but this conference was very clearly intended to be the start of something, not the wrap-up.

So your comment, Alix, “Instead of critiquing Google’s effort, it will be more productive and valuable to work in unison with Google on their mission to ‘initiate a global conversation’” seemed to me to bring us back to the actual intent Google had announced for the conference, and you reinforce that when you write, “I hope that more people will join in on the conversation in a meaningful and (gasp) positive way.”

My questions are: how and where do we do this?

There will have been contacts made at the conference that will lead to an exchange of emails, no doubt – but that’s not a global conversation.

Here are some of the problems I foresee:

(a) siloing: the conversation limiting itself to a few constituencies, each of which talks mainly among its own members, leading to

(b) group think: in which the widely assumed gets even more firmly entrenched as “wisdom”, with

(c) secrecy: meaning that potentially relevant information is unavailable to some or all participants, all of which add up to

(d) blind spots: topics and approaches that still don’t get the attention and exploration they deserve.

The solutions would need to include:

(a) networked diversity: by which I mean a structured means of getting the unpopular or minority opinion front and center (compare business brainstorming in which a facilitator ensures even the “quiet ones” get heard, and that even poor ideas are expressed without critique until a later, evaluative stage),

(b) contrariety: meaning that whatever ideas are “easily dismissed” get special attention, with

(c) transparency: meaning that whatever could be redacted and made partially available is made available, not (as in US Govt “open source” material, closely held), so that

(d) oddballs and outriders get to participate…

Jami Miscik who was Deputy Director for Intelligence at the time, caught my attention when she said in 2004, “Embrace the maverick”. Oddballs aka mavericks make the best contrarians, because they start from different premises / different assumption bases. Miscik accordingly invited science fiction and film writers to interact with her analysts at CIA, and found that when they did, they produced 80% already known ideas, 10% chaff, and 10% new and “valid” scenarios. But even then, “science fiction and screen writers” is a box…

Cross-fertilization, questioning of assumptions, passion, reverie, visualization, scenario planning, play – the number of strategies that could be employed to improve the chances of a successful new insight emerging are many and various – unkempt artists probably know some of them better than suits with high IQs and clearances, and Google clearly knows this, too…

But where?

I mean, what Google+ circles do any of us join, to join this global conversation? What twitter hashtag brings us together under one roof? When’s the follow up in my neck of the woods, or yours?

What’s the method for getting the conversation widespread, well-informed – and scaleable, so the best of the grass roots and local ideas can find their way to the influential and informed, and the best insights of the influential and informed can percolate through to the grass roots and local?

Lastly, I’d like to thank Google for getting a dialog going between those with a range of subjective experiences of radicalization, and those whose job it is to understand and thus be able to interdict it. Demonization never got the situation in Northern Ireland anywhere near peace – listening did.

And thank you too, Alix, for your own contribution. Let’s move the conversation onwards.


MountainRunner in Foreign Policy

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Longtime blogfriend Matt “MountainRunner” Armstrong has an important explanatory article up at Foreign Policy.com:

Mind Games:

Why Rolling Stone‘s article on the military’s domestic psy-ops scandal gets it so wrong.

Rolling Stone has done it again with another scoop by Michael Hastings showing the U.S. military’s manipulation of public opinion and wanton disregard for civilian leadership. The article, “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators,” is another example of an officer corps run amok, right?

Not so fast. Both stories expose an altogether different problem once you cut through the hyperbole.

Central to Hastings’s article are charges by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes that he was part of a team of “psychological operations soldiers” ordered to use psychological operations techniques to deceive and manipulate the opinion of senators and other dignitaries visiting the NATO training mission in Kabul. This was done, Holmes describes, under the orders of the commanding general, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV (above), and his staff.

The overstatement in the article, stemming entirely from comments by Holmes, has in turn spurred more of the same focused on alleged “mind tricks” against several senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), other members of Congress, think-tank analysts, and foreign dignitaries.

Hastings and his supporters are quick to indict the military for allowing another cowboy to go off the reservation to create support for an unpopular conflict people simply want to have disappear. Challenging the narrative by Holmes has been described as a “smear campaign.” Others reacting to these criticisms slam the media as trying to take down the military. ….


Armstrong on “Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans”

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Blogfriend and public diplomacy expert Matt Armstrong of MountainRunner has a new op-ed at World Politics Review:

Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might “spill over” into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the “firewall” created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name.

But in hiding from the public, Congress, and even the rest of the government what the U.S. government says and does abroad, this imaginary separation between foreign and domestic audiences reduces awareness of the State Department’s effectiveness (as well as that of USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation), increases the cost of engagement while decreasing overall effectiveness, and limits accountability. Its negative impact on the State Department, in particular, helped propel the militarization of U.S. public diplomacy, as the Defense Department stepped in, clumsily, to fill gaps left by ineffectual or absent civilian efforts. Overall, Smith-Mundt is a lose-lose scenario for the American public and people around the world.

Read the rest here.


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