zenpundit.com » analytic

Archive for the ‘analytic’ Category

The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd II: The Saga of Kennanbot

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

(by Adam Elkus) 

Lynn Rees famously pitied the American Geopolitical Nerd.

Pity the American nerd.

His brow furrows.

The American nerd suffers from chronic contradiction. While he sees finely diced reality within his area of expertise in exquisite, even excruciating, detail, he sees the wider world only in the broadest shades of bright, shining ideals, his specialized fixations writ large.

The corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly.  A measured smile. Careful. 

Summoned by Hints of Greater Things to Come, shimmering Just Beyond Reach, the American nerd’s policies are lovingly handcrafted, calibrated to finely exploit his own Unique Domain Knowledge.

He lightly scratches and then strokes his chin. Thoughtful. Ever thoughtful.

In waking slumber, the American nerd makes the world anew. He renews it in the image of the vision of visions. Hisvision. Worthy of his vision.

He frowns.

Defacing the American nerd’s finest intents is a flaw: his vision, in its beauty, is compromised. It’s blemished by the limited, blighted, and unworthy means available to attain it.

To borrow an idea from Daniel Dennett, let us imagine an AI by the name of Kennanbot being utilized for robotics experiments a long time ago.

Kennanbot lives in a simple test environment world that consists of Kennanbot, a threatening entity known as the Soviet Union, and a few other objects. Kennanbot’s job is to figure out how to contain the Soviet Union, which is steadily moving closer to Kennanbot and poses great dangers. The first robot to deal with this scenario is Kennanbot 1.0. Kennanbot 1.0 utilizes an expert system-style architecture that consists of a narrow set of valid (yet highly granular) facts about the world and an inference engine that allows him to make decisions. His knowledge and pre-programmed production rules  pertain almost exclusively to the USSR. However, this knowledge base and inference engine cannot help Kennanbot 1.0 manipulate an novel object in the room that could be of use — the United States of America (USA). If Kennanbot 1.0 knew how to properly operate the USA (something completely absent from Kennanbot’s knowledge base and hard-coded behaviors), he could potentially use it to contain the Soviet Union.  Yet Kennanbot does not understand the USA at all. It is a complex and mysterious object that exists outside of his knowledge base. And since Kennanbot uses the closed world assumption, anything outside the knowledge base doesn’t exist.

The next iteration of Kennanbot, Kennanbot 2.0, uses crude stereotypes to fill in for its lack of knowledge about the USA. Kennanbot cannot come to know the USA as well as an USA resident, but he can at least acquire a compendium of operational frames and scripts to help it interact with the USA. Dennett explains how those work:

The inspiring insight here is the idea that all of life’s experiences, for all their variety, boil down to variations on a manageable number of stereotypic themes, paradigmatic scenarios – `frames’ in Minsky’s terms, ‘scripts’ in Schank’s.

An artificial agent with a well-stocked compendium of frames or scripts, appropriately linked to each other and to the impingements of the world via its perceptual organs, would face the world with an elaborate system of what might be called habits of attention and benign tendencies to leap to particular sorts of conclusions in particular sorts of circumstances. It would, `automatically’ pay attention to certain features in certain environments and assume that certain unexamined normal features of those environments were present. Concomitantly, it would be differentially alert to relevant divergences from the stereotypes it would always begin by `expecting’.

Simulations of fragments of such an agent’s encounters with its world reveal that in many situations it behaves quite felicitously and apparently naturally, and it is hard to say, of course, what the limits of this approach are.

There is one important problem: Kennanbot 2.0 only functions correctly when the USA operates in a matter consistent with his view of the world — and his bizarre and idiosyncratic stereotypes. When there is a discrepancy between the stereotypes and reality, the robot exhibits “preposterously counter-productive activities” that Dennett describes below:

Most obviously, while such systems perform creditably when the world co-operates with their stereotypes, and even with anticipated variations on them, when their worlds turn perverse, such systems typically cannot recover gracefully from the misanalyses they are led into. In fact, their behaviour in extremis looks for all the world like the preposterously counter-productive activities of insects betrayed by their rigid tropisms and other genetically hard-wired behavioural routines.

For example, here are some of those counter-productive activities:

His Pennsylvania farm providing inadequate refuge, Kennan even fantasizes about retreating to New Hampshire or Vermont to farmfantasies that, as the years pass, shift to ever more remote locales: Alaska, Norway, Antarctica. He is a relic of the nineteenth century, a misfit in modern times. The achievements of science, medicine, and technology leave him cold; he sees only the defilement of nature wrought by the automobile, and the corruption of the spirit brought on by consumer society, whose blight he laments with numbing frequency. (“With all due effort to avoid exaggerated pessimism and over-dramatization,” he writes, in a typical passage, from 1978, “I can see no salvation for the U.S. either in its external relations nor in the development of its life internally.”) From urban decay to the decline of the schools, from the media’s crass commercialism to sexual libertinism, he sees all about him a decadent societylate Romeoffering grounds only for hopelessness.

Here are some more:

It was the workhorse Nitze who had the nose for power, while the self-lacerating Kennan commented from the sidelines. Thompson perceptively writes, “Too fragile and easily hurt, he was like Chiron, the wise and immortal centaur of Greek mythology who is shot by an arrow and develops a wound that never heals.” Towards the end of their lives, however, Nitze and Kennan reconciled their differences as the Cold War’s end prompted Nitze to endorse the abolition of the weapons whose existence he had once done so much to promote.

In time, Kennanbot 2.0 is abandoned in favor of the newer, sexier Nitzebot. Kennanbot is later rediscovered by computer hipsters and venerated as the only real way to make a geopolitical robot. However, the hipsters cannot agree about whether or not to install OpenBSD or FreeBSD as Kennanbot’s onboard operating system, and they kill each other in an frenzy of computer hipster violence.

Millions of years later, humanity is extinct and intelligent aliens come to the wreck that was once Earth. A sleeping Kennanbot, still splattered with the blood of the computer hipsters, is the only proof that mankind once existed. The lead alien activates Kennanbot, and he proceeds — like clockwork — to spew a stream of invective about Africans, Chinese, Jews, women, hippies, corporate CEOS, and anyone else not named Kennanbot. In between Kennanbot talks about his strategy to contain the Soviet Union, but always returns to his plight of having to rely on the USA to accomplish such a task. The lead alien shrugs, watches Kennanbot gesticulate wildly, and then hits the “Off” button. Kennanbot shuts down for the last time, never to wake up again.

“Xorg, this planet was a waste of time. You said we’d find some intelligent life here. All we’ve found is a possible primitive ancestor of the people we hate on the Zendari Intergalactic Security Council. Let’s jump this rock and get some beer.”


The Tragedy of the Strategist

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

(by Adam Elkus)

Lynn Rees pitied the geopolitical nerd. I pity the modern strategist. This is my attempt at expanding on Rees’ entry, now that it is back up on the Interwebs. And by expand, I will do (in my own way), an post that idiomatically draws on the style and ideas of the old Committee of Public Safety blogs that Rees used to write. So why do I pity the strategist? I pity the strategist because of his or her futile rage against the very institutions they operate within, a rage that I’ve expounded on in various ways in other writings. I differ from Rees in that I argue that the strategist is very much a prisoner of their own expectations, and a lot of strategic debate amounts to a futile attempt to reverse what might even be regarded by intellectual adversaries as a sorry state of affairs.

A Division of Strategic Labor

In olden times, policy, strategy, and tactics were all embodied in a singular (to borrow a fairly evocative image of a favorite game of mine) person of lordly caliber. Everything — from the operations and maneuvers of individual combat units to the destiny of nations — could be glimpsed from his directed telescope and directed with his Marshal’s Baton. It was fun while it lasted. But the immense scale of modern warfare (even Mao didn’t do all of it himself) and the impact of specialization on Great Power strategy ruined this dynamic (note that none of this necessarily applies, say, to a guerrilla band or a tinpot dictatorship where George Clooney is currently or may in the future testify[ing] in Congress about)

Now there were also some big downsides to this Great Strategic Man (and every so often, Woman) idea. When we look back on history to tell the bedtime stories of Good Strategy (in contrast to our tales of Bad Strategy woes), we read selectively. If you have an Alexander as your Great Captain, then awesome. If you don’t — let’s say you are one of the Romans to get annihilated in Cannae — well, the incompetence of one man or woman dooms the entire enterprise. This business model could not scale well, and as warfare industrialized it acquired one characteristic of capitalism — specialization and cost-cutting. We no longer expect full-service at our local Chevron– we pump our own gas. We no longer deal with a single, heroic travel agent when making trips — we patch our itinerary together via a variety of social media apps. Strategy is no exception, and the “mechanical” bonds that once united the strategic community have been replaced by a more amorphous anomie. Of course, if Durkheim is right this is only a sign of our progression into the modern era.

Capitalism and industrialization have led to increasing specialization, and disrupted many old and venerable industries. And strategy is no exception to the market’s “creative destruction,” which has ruined everything from the mightiest of car makers to the crappiest of other automotive rent-seeking interests. Instead of the capital-S Strategist, riding on his white horse and looking fashionable in his tricorne hat or pickelhaube, responsibility for strategy was diffused to a group of people that we might crudely regard according to the following organizational schema:

  • Political leaders (“we ought to invade the People’s Republic of Bumf***kistan because of X, Y, and Z totally subjective reasons which I will dress up as somehow being of objective national interest — even if I know in the back of my head that an non-subjective definition of the national interest is a fantasy of naive realists. Oh, and you strategy folks can get this done before the electoral cycle, amirite?”)
  • Strategic planners (“How many tanks, aircraft, nukes, etc do we need to overcome the Bumf**kistani army? How can we develop strategic options for the invasion? Do we have an exit plan? Do we even have a Grand Strategy (TM) for this? And who knows whether we’ll need an even Grander Than Grand Strategy? Wait, you aren’t going to actually listen to my Sound Strategic Suggestions? DON’T YOU KNOW THAT TACTICS WITHOUT STRATEGY IS THE NOISE BEFORE DEFEAT?!?!?! SUN TZU SAID IT, HE’S ANCIENT, WISE, AND SH*T! YOU WOULDN’T DISREGARD WHAT YODA SAID TO LUKE, RIGHT??? YOU NEED STRATEGISTS LIKE ME, MY MANAGEMENT HANDBOOK SAID SO!!! JUST BECAUSE I HAVE NO ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR IMPLEMENTING ANY OF MY AMBITIOUS IDEAS DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN JUST IGNORE THEM!!! *starts to cry profusely and retreats to the War Room to sulk and play a game with WOPR*.”
  • Strategic executors (“OK, I’ve set up the joint HQ at CENTCOM. I am in charge of a multinational army, much of which the Political Leaders bribed to help us invade Bumf**istan. I actually have to make this thing work. Oh and by the way, everything you other dudes say must be processed through my impenetrable, buzzword-laden jargon and doctrine that I cast as holy writ. I’ve created an impenetrable tree fort called Operational Art, and no one with cooties is allowed in! Don’t try – I’ll just knock down the ladder and throw rocks at you while you climb up the tree.”)

“Strategy” is in large part the result of whatever Political Leader needs to do to stay in power (the Bumf**istanis have just beheaded an American live on TV, the Leader has just been caught in bed with an unpaid intern, and the American public doesn’t care as long as the median voter preference is preserved). Yet this dream must be made into strategic reality. Thus, the Strategic Planner needs to develop an ambitious and far-reaching (yet also narrow-minded) scheme in isolation from the Political Leader’s actual motivations and concerns (in fact, the plan has been developed perhaps 10 years ago as a CONPLAN, and dusted off/decorated with some new stickers and decals for the present occasion). Finally,  the Strategic Executor can, well, actually try to implement the chaotic mishmash he or she has to work with on the ground. Often times they may just chuck the whole thing overboard and say they will use Design or some other doohickey to “frame the problem” in a manner that they are actually familiar with, regardless of necessity or utility. “You see, Sir, you shouldn’t be disregarding this option I came up with. It was crafted using My-Own-Assumption-Based-Planning, the latest in military planning methodologies! So what if it magically happens to be completely favorable to the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines/Delta Force/Rainbow Six/TF 141′s organizational biases and interests?”

I am painting with extremely broad strokes, but it is fair to say that this does describe the broad parameters of the Strategic Division of Labor in Modern Society. Even if Danny Steed plausibly argues that it does not necessitate failure, this is not to say that this is a salve for the problem that strategists face. They once ran everything now they are split into three squabbling groups.

The Glorious Socialist Workers’ Struggle Against the Capitalist Running Dogs (Aka, Politicians)

The strategist, like a Russian ultranationalist, has dim memories of the glory that once was Mother Strategica.  These hazy memories add even more pain to the unfortunate reality of the Motherland’s current state. The capitalist imperialists have taken over and torn down the giant bust of Napoleon in Strategy Square. The city once called Strategygrad has now been renamed back to its original ancien regime era moniker. And worse yet — they, the once proud siloviki of strategy, have been reduced to vulgar technicians building the latest and greatest Strategy Widget for the heathen capitalist that has no appreciation for their unique talent and the cause of Sound Strategy (TM) they fought so hard to serve. Instead of one strategist Having It All, the strategist now supplies his or her Strategy Widgets to the Political Leader. Every day, he or she toils in the Strategy Factory, unable to own the means of production or benefit from the fruit of their own labor. They labor and labor to make Strategies for the Boss, and the Boss gets all of the credit for said strategies. If strategic labor is converted into political currency, that currency goes entirely into the Boss’s coffers.

So, what is a comrade to do once he or she is alienated from their labor? Marxian theory catalogs several potential responses:

0. The opium of the masses.  Strategists withdraw into their art and fetishize it with a religious fervor. There is a One True Strategy, and one day — after some cataclysm they perpetually warn of due to impure blasphemies of “idealists” and “tacticians,” the believers will be raptured into Strategy Heaven, the unbelievers will undergo a Great and Terrible Tribulation, and the forces of Strategy and Idealism/Tactical Fixation/Etc Etc will do battle (it’s strategy, what else would they do?) at Megiddo.

1. Commodity fetishism:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. …

The “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” descend upon Strategic Man or Woman. They fetishize strategy, treating it as an object with inherent value as opposed to a product of social relations between things, in the same way fetishes in cults endow lifeless objects with human properties. They ignore Marx’s warning that a commodity has no inherent value beyond social and economic relations, treating the value of Strategy writ large and any strategy they produced as inherent and obvious:

As Marx explains, “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things” (164-65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165).

Strategy has no value beyond what it does for the policy. That policy might entail exploitation and alienation of the strategist, but that’s inherent in the labor relationship. The Political Leader owns the means of production. He can hire and fire strategists as need be, as he can depend on an endless supply of ambitious men and women with an interest in producing Strategy Widgets, whether drawn from the crowd of Kennan Otakus that cosplay as the Mr. X article at Comic-Con every year or military strategists whose military expertise can be portrayed (sotto voice) as a so-called “threat to civilian control” if they should as much dare to disagree with the Political Leader in public.

2. Collective action. The worker, through some combination of organization, threat, sit-ins, and other assertions of power, (or, to be more idiomatic, a “process of dialogue and negotiation“), the strategist can negotiate better working conditions and perks. Yet who is to guarantee these arrangements will persist? Much of 20th century American labor gains eroded in the intervening decades. From the worker’s perspective, this amounts to nothing less than a counterrevolution, an putsch from above. That very well be the case, but it is also important to note that one of the many reasons for this outcome was that the multi-national corporation and the post-WWII economic recovery of the rest of the world rendered arrangements gained through collective bargaining outmoded. Look at the US auto industry, for example.

Much as some idealize the post-WWII period of American labor relations and employment, many strategists (said Kennan Otakus) idealize a better, gentler time when there was  happiness and mutual understanding between Strategists and an enlightened boss. Every Strategist wasn’t just a cog in the Strategy Factory — they could live in a nice Strategy House, drive a Strategy Car, and go to work in their Pickehaulbe/Flannel Suit combo. They felt like their work had meaning. Perhaps they, like the stereotypical Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, had deeper or more existential concerns, but their material lot was (on surface) good enough to focus their attentions on “Meaning of Life” and “Why Are Those Damn Teenagers Sharing Milkshakes, Necking, and Riding Around on Motorcycles”-esque problems and questions.

Much like the aggrieved Michael Douglas in Falling Down, some react to the loss of their privileges with aggression. But instead of Douglas’ semi-automatic enabled shooting rampage, they react to this state of affairs with a fusillade of purely verbal ammunition. They’ll call their political masters flimflam men, neocons, neolibs, idealists, corrupt products of the military-industrial complex, and even beat up on political scientists too busy writing R/Python code to listen to their nonstop whining and whinging about why In the Ye Olde Days Security Studies Was Done Via Abacus and Dead Prussian Quotations. But while at least Douglas’s aggrieved former defense contractor caused enough trouble to taken become a media sensation and a police target, the Strategist is more yapping chihuahua than Big Dog. The Political Leader will withhold treats,  tug on the leash and say “bad doggy” in front of the press, or take our chihuahua-like Strategist to Cesar the Dog Whisperer  until the Strategist is fully domesticated from yapping chihuahua to purse puppy. The Strategist will go on to write an aggrieved tell-all memoir (“if they only listened to me, we would have won”) once they conclude their miserable stint in government or leak vindictively to reporters that will enable their vanity and self-serving comments in exchange for pageviews. But what, if anything, does it matter?

At the heart of the aggressive response is the idea that – as in a cliche Western or police movie — the Strategist throwing his Strategy Tools or Strategy Badge into the river and declaring “I quit!” is a meaningful moral statement that will shock the “corrupt” town the Sheriff has come to save into recognition of his sacrifice and value. In reality, the Strategist is only useful inasmuch as his or her departure in protest aids the opposition party’s attempt to portray the Political Leader as feckless in his or her dismissal of expert advice. Beyond that, it is fair to ask what difference it will make — the Political Leader may just replace the Strategist with another Strategist put on an even tighter leash, further centralizing control of strategy among the Political Leader’s immediate subordinates.

3. Gramscian Hegemony/CultureJamming/etc. While this may paint a hopeless picture, the Strategist is not without options. In theory, the oppressed Strategists, through development of their own “organic intellectuals,” can wage a “war of position” to break the hold of cultural hegemony that maintains the current base and superstructure. Over the long term, they will create the conditions for the revolutionary class struggle in which Strategists will finally overthrow the hated superclass that oppresses them. One does not necessarily have to take a Gramscian interpretation of this as much as acknowledge a general, well, strategy that hews to the following maxims:

  • Politics is war by other means.
  • Only through the political and cultural field can the Class Struggle be won.
  • We will seek to raise the consciousness of Strategists everywhere and build solidarity among them. It does not matter if they work for the Army, Navy, Marines, NSC, or a Think-Tank. A Strategist is a Strategist.
  • We will utilize the principle of Repressive Tolerance — the beliefs of our enemies must not be tolerated. Disagreement with us is not just difference of opinion — it is truly hate speech, oppressive in its own right. To disagree with us is to Not Have a Strategy, or even worse, to practice Tactics exclusively.
  • When the time is right, and Strategists have overcome the forces of counter-reaction, the revolution will truly begin. In the People’s Republic of Strategika, everyone must honor the great icons of the people (insert War College curriculum favorite/structural IR realist/hilariously over-idealized Cold Warrior here) and all Class Enemies will be punished for their crimes and oppression of the Strategist/re-educated to see the situation with Realism and Sound Strategy.

Unfortunately, like real cultural Marxists, this strategy is undone by the “nation of rebels” issue. Counterculture easily becomes consumer culture. Today’s edgy, consciousness-raising strategic critique is tomorrow’s establishment bromide. And Political Leaders depend on a steady stream of edgy but ephemeral fads to maintain novelty. The Strategist may start out as a tattooed punk rocker, but will end up as a businessman in pin stripes helping The Man do as he pleases.

To go back to my Mother Strategika analogy, the core problem here has much to do with the expectations of strategists themselves. Both Russia hawks and Russia doves seem –in their own way — to agree that the US made a mess of things in Russia after the Cold War, although policy prescriptions differ. Similarly, anyone with a heart sympathizes with the plight of the suddenly (well, given that the Alexander/Napoleon model dominated up to late 1800s, “suddenly” is correct) deskilled, depowered, and divided Strategist. But Revolution — barring some Seven Days in May-esque military coup that many Strategists themselves would never desire in a million years or a horrific catastrophe that suddenly forces re-prioritiation of the Strategist class’ privileges– will likely not be televised, tweeted, Tumblr’d, Instagram’d, or Facebook-picture tagged. Why?

Please Don’t Hate Me Because I Have Political Power, Baby

Only Notorious B.I.G’s song “Playa Hater” can express the sheer degree of disregard the Political Leader has for yet another bitter Strategist with a parable about why it was all better in Bismarck or Kennan’s day:

Playa (hata’), turn your head ’round (turn your head ’round)
Lay on the ground, you’ve been robbed
Wake up (wake up), open the door (open the door)
Lay on the floor, you’ve been robbed ….

Playa (hata’), turn your head round
Take off that crown, you’ve been robbed
Wake up, open the door
Don’t cry no more, you’ve been robbed ….

You see, there are two kind of people in the world today
We have, the playaz, and we have, the playa haters
Please don’t hate me because I’m beautiful baby ..

Hear what they talk, about me
But my crew so deep, you can’t do a damn thing to me

Now, I did not completely pull that analogy out of nowhere. Rap is replete with entertainment figures mocking the specter of the “player hater” or the backpack-clad “mad rapper” still in his basement putting out mixtape after mixtape of “real hip hip” that no one actually listens to. In this view, saying it was all good back in Kennan’s day is just as irrelevant as idealization of boom-bap rap, the time when Chuck D and Public Enemy were cutting-edge artists, or back when people preferred Reasonable Doubt to Drake. No matter of pleading will convince everyone to trade in whatever newest rap gear they wear for a Beastie Boys-like outfit, and no amount of pleading will suddenly make pickelhaubes and tricorne hats hot again. And, like a player hater driven mad by the knowledge that a hated rap figure’s deep-rolling and heavily armed entourage will turn him into Swiss cheese if he ever tries something in the club, the Strategist similarly is a victim of his own impotence. He or she cannot do a thing to the Political Leader, who rolls with an even deeper and more heavily armed entourage (although one wonders if Jay-Z has better protection than POTUS these days).

So, like another group of frustrated intellectuals, the Strategists are “caught between capitalist reality and their own frustrated aspirations.” 


Strategists are more interested in telling what the Boss what he or she should like, how or she should think, and what the Boss — above all else – should buy. To be blunt, the Strategist wants the Boss to share his own policy preferences, so the Strategist can, well, Strategize as he or she pleases. The Strategist wants to own the means of production and the fruits of his or her labor. To combine another set of unwieldy metaphors, the Strategist wants a magical unicorn flying over a frozen Hell with the aid of a winged pig.  Needles to say, maybe they’ll get the winged pig at best — but not the unicorn (they need the horn to break through newly frozen Hell’s ice). And even the winged pig looks kinda shaky.

At heart, though I agree very much with Lynn’s tragedy of the geopolitical nerd, it would be uncharitable to not point out that the titular Nerd — like Rousseau’s Man in the State of Nature — is perhaps unhinged because he sits at great remove from his natural habitat. He would prefer, like the siloviki of Russia preferred after the end of the USSR, a return to the good old days. Specifically, he would prefer to dictate policy, strategy, and tactics. That way no element of “ends, ways, and means” would be out of sync, all of it would be at his fingertips. If he didn’t like the policy, well, he made the policy! So he could change it.

The Strategist today is an impotent, rage-driven figure that complains, complains, and complains in the hope that whatever subjective policy idea they want is identified as objectively — and strategically — the “right” thing to do and they are put to work making (in a self licking strategic ice cream cone) a set of strategy and tactics for said policy. Perhaps they could start to consider the idea that it may be less costly to accept that change has occurred. It might even be, well, strategic.

And if they are not willing to accept this reality, it isn’t Clausewitz that will help them. It’s Schmitt or Lenin, because the Strategist’s narrow and dogmatic insistence on his or her own unique policy preferences, strategic visions, etc can only by forced on an body politic that rejects them through the usage of propaganda and coercion that changes what Marxists dub the “correlation of forces.” If that’s the job, well, we’ve gone truly beyond strategy into what our frustrated Strategist (ironically) hates the most — politics.


What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).


Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.


Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.


Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.


Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.


For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.


This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.


Form is Insight: parliamentarian scuffle, photographer’s eye

Monday, August 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- insight -- from the artistic eye via the ayat of the Qur'an and poetic and scientific "readings" to the craft of intelligence analysis ]

You might think this was an image taken from some art book by EH GombrichArt and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation? — or John Berger — Ways of Seeing, perhaps? — but it’s not. As you might have guessed from my title, or from seeing it elsewhere recently, on BoingBoing, Twitter or wherever.

It’s a journalist’s photo of a brawl in the Ukrainean parliament, where debate is still as lively as it was on the floor of the US House of Representatives in 1798:

or 1858:

A Parliamentary brawl, it would seem, is one mode of the continuation of politics by other means. Or is it just politics as usual?


The illustration at the head of this post is indeed “art criticism” in the tradition of Gombrich and Berger, but it’s not an illustration of Old Masterly technique — it’s an artist’s comment on a press photo of a recent brawl, as indicated above, in the Ukrainean parliament. Here’s the photo itself:


It’s masterful — and indeed Old Masterful enough that Manzil Lajura posted the photo itself with the two attendant images on FaceBook under the title “Pelea en el parlamento Ucraniano convertido en arte renacentista” — roughly, Brawl in the Ukrainian parliament transformed into Renaissance art..

And yes.

Lajura’s post was then picked up and tweeted by James Harvey:

And thence onwards into viral multiplicity.


So what does this have to do with intelligence — in the analytic sense, or the general sense of intellectual capacity?

Just that it’s a matter of “reading” a surface for more than superficial insight — for “signs” (ayat, the word also used to describe verses in the Qur’an).

What I’m calling “reading” here takes many forms, visual and artistic in this instance, verbal in the case of “closely read” texts — but generalizable as the ways in which we “read” the world. In my post What the Dickens? Symbolic details in Inspire issue 3 exploring the evidence for al-Awlaki’s involvement in the thankfully foiled mail attacks on two Chicago synagogues, I quoted Fazlun Khalid, Islam and the Environment:

The Qur’an refers to creation or the natural world as the signs (ayat) of Allah, the Creator, and this is also the name given to the verses contained in the Qur’an. Ayat means signs, symbols or proofs of the divine. As the Qur’an is proof of Allah so likewise is His creation. The Qur’an also speaks of signs within the self and as Nasr explains, “… when Muslim sages referred to the cosmic or ontological Qur’an … they saw upon the face of every creature letters and words from the cosmic Qur’an … they remained fully aware of the fact that the Qur’an refers to phenomena of nature and events within the soul of man as ayat … for them forms of nature were literally ayat Allah”. As the Qur’an says, “there are certainly signs (ayat) in the earth for people with certainty; and in yourselves. Do you not then see?” (Adh-Dhariat, 51:20, 21).

— and gave some additional details in a more recent update post, Eavesdropping on Twitter — about al-Awlaqi and Dickens.


For the mystic, such signs are revelatory of the divine within the natural; for artists, hallmarks of true beauty; for a scientist, for a poet, perhaps, letters in the calligraphy with which the world is written, for jihadists and natsec analysts alike, signals in a significant code — a language used by jihadists in communication, a code analysts must surely learn to read. Here’s Galileo, with a scientist’s view:

Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes. I mean the universe, but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures without whose help it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word of it, and without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

Recognizing the Fibonacci series / golden ratio spiral, as in the photo of the Ukrainean brawl, is just one of the ways to “read deeper” whatever sights, sounds, texts and images come our way — one of a thousand. William Benzon, blogging at New Savanna today, mentions another. He quotes J. Hillis Miller on Kenneth Burke:

Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it’s probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.

Who are these folk? They are the kinds of folk who would have been recruited from Yale’s English department in the glory days of OSS and CIA

But what kind of analysis? Attempting to distinguish “signal” from “noise,” officials at the CIA and Defense Department debate competing methods of data-sifting and weigh the aggressive, “hypotheses-driven” style of interpretation favored by the Pentagon. Probability and risk are continually assessed, and sometimes the talk can sound nearly philosophical. Referring to the search for illegal weapons in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on Aug. 5 that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

If such matters arose at a university, they would attract the attention of philosophers of science or even theorists of literature, who study how to tease meaning out of texts. And indeed, the academy has profoundly shaped the rough-and-tumble espionage trade since the founding days of the CIA. In his classic 1987 study, “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961,” Yale historian Robin W. Winks showed how professors took a crucial role in creating and manning the agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). No university played a greater role than Winks’s own. “From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, many to remain on after the war to form the core of the new CIA,” Winks notes.

It wasn’t just globe-trotting historians and social scientists who made the leap. As Winks emphasized, Yale’s literature specialists played a key role in shaping the agency’s thinking.


The photographer and editor who took and “framed” that image of the Ukrainean parliamentary brawl had an ‘eye” for pattern-recognition — in terms of “form” as much as “content’.


New E-Book from John Robb

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

I have been a long time fan of John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog for many years and strongly recommend his military theory book  Brave New War for anyone interested in changes in warfare in the 21st century.  If you have been following GG, you know that John’s interests have turned in recent years  from the destructive part of  Boyd’s strategic continuum (tactics-operations/grand tactics -strategy) more toward the constructive ( grand strategy – theme for vitality and growth) with increasing examination of economic, ethical, legal, cultural and moral dimensions of societal rule-sets.

John has a new E-Book out, first of a series, that lays out his thinking in this area and how we can fix what ails America.

The American Way

My new booklet, “The American Way” is now on Amazon.  

If you are wondering what is wrong with America.  This booklet provides a concise answer.  

Also, this booklet provides a way to get us back on a path towards economic progress.  

Be forewarned, this booklet is just the start.  I’ll have more concrete ways to do it in booklets to be released over the next three months.  


PS:  I’ve got a booklet on iWar coming out next month too.

John gave me a preview of the manuscript and I thoroughly endorse the direction in which he is going with The American Way. America’s economic and political problems and strategic dysfunction have epistemological and moral roots.


Switch to our mobile site