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The Darkness behind Colonel Nightingale’s Two Great Truths

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

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

Colonel Keith Nightingale, was featured  at Thomas Rick’s Best Defense blog  ”future of war” series at Foreign Policy.com. It is a strong piece, well worth reading:

The seven ingredients of  highly adaptive and effective militaries  

The there are two great truths about the future of war.
The first is that it will consist of identifying and killing the enemy and either prevailing or not. We can surmise all sorts of new bells and whistles and technologies yet unknown, but, ultimately, it comes down to killing people. It doesn’t always have to happen, but you always have to prepare to make it happen, and have the other guy know that.
The other great truth is that whatever we think today regarding the form, type, and location of our next conflict, will be wrong. Our history demonstrates this with great clarity.
Well then, how do we appropriately organize for the next conflict if both these things are true? There are a number of historical verities that should serve as guides for both our resourcing and our management. In no particular order, but with the whole in mind, here are some key points to consider that have proven historically very valuable in times of war. The historic degree of support for any one or all within the service structures usually indicated the strengths and shortfalls of our prior leadership vision, preparation, and battlefield successes or failures at the time…..
Read the rest here.
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Nightingale goes on to explain the important variables of technology, intelligence, personnel quality eccentric or maverick thinkers, linguistic and cultural expertise, deployability and leadership. His points are sound and I recommend them with general agreement.
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One area I wish he had spent more time expounding upon was the part “prevailing or not“. We face a major problem here in that the current generation of  American leaders, our bipartisan elite, our ruling class – call them whatever you will – do not seem to care if America wins wars or not.
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Certainly, our civilian leaders stand ever ready to claim political credit from any tactical success or bask in the reflected glory of the admirable heroism of individual soldiers, Marines, pilots and sailors. And no one wants to be the guy blamed for an overseas disaster (“Who lost China?”, the Vietnam Syndrome, Desert One,  Iraq) or losing a war, but winning one? Victory in a strategic sense? Not really a priority for this administration or its prominent GOP critics. Not even close.
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While the Beltway elite are generally fairly enthusiastic about starting wars, once begun the orientation of our officials appears to be one of “management” rather than “leadership”. The war is perceived a problem to be “managed” – like unemployment, sex scandals or high gas prices – in terms of how short term public perceptions of the war impact domestic politics and the fortunes of politicians, donors, lobbyists and other credentialed, upjumped ward heelers. Victory, if it comes, is as likely to be a product of chance rather than design. Few nations as fantastically wealthy and militarily puissant as the United States could lose a war to an enemy as backward and impoverished as the Taliban without an impressively clueless political culture wallowing in narcissism and moral retardation.
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Perhaps this astrategic or anti-strategic posture is merely the natural course of cultural evolution in complex, imperial powers.  Did Roman senators,  patricians or the plebian masses living on the dole in Rome circa 180 ad trouble themselves to look beyond the pleasures of the bath house or the table and worry overmuch about the sacrifices of the legions manning the the forts on the Rhine that kept them safe? Did the British aristocracy and gentry of Hanoverian Great Britain cease their addictions to gambling and whoring long enough to preserve their empire in North America?
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Has human nature changed enough in the last two hundred or two thousand years that it is reasonable to expect that we are any different?
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There is time to turn away from the path of decline, oligarchy and creeping authoritarianism – America is an incredibly wealthy and powerful nation, blessed in many ways, which is why we can survive periodic bouts of corruption and gross mismanagement. However, this time we have raised a new class among us; children of the sixties and seventies, now turning gray, and this Manhattan-Beltway nomenklatura have the ethical compass of the locust and the spirit of the courtier as a form of class solidarity. They seem to view their fellow Americans with a mixture of paternalism, disdain and fear,
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They will go neither easily nor quietly.
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New Article at War on the Rocks

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here

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An Absurd Column by Walter Pincus

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

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

Walter Pincus, taking notes for the embattled bureaucrats of the creepy-state here:

‘Front-Page Rule’ is unprecedented in U.S. intelligence community 

….“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40-year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.

However, that’s not what President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.

The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.

In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.

….Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.

There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.

For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.

….The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 [a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists], we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”

It is true that the Church and Pike hearings left a generation of IC personnel feeling burned and very risk averse toward covert operations and distrustful of politicians as a career philosophy. We are seeing that longstanding IC bureaucratic preference for risk aversion here in the veiled threat by senior insiders that the IC will have to sit on their hands vis-a-vis foreigners unless the NSA is greenlighted to spy on Americans to an unlimited degree.

What utter rubbish.

The Church and Pike hearings were primarily about the so-called CIA “crown jewels” – clandestine operations, actual and proposed, against foreign targets that were hostile to the United States and usually sympathetic to the Soviet Union when not outright Communists. Some of these operations were ill-considered and harebrained while others were well conceived if not executed, but the driving force behind the hearings was that many prominent committee members were very liberal to leftist antiwar Democrats, some had monumental egos or presidential ambitions and many strongly opposed anti-communist and interventionist foreign policies for ideological reasons.

It is also true that this 1970′s history has little or nothing to do with the NSA becoming an unconstitutional organ of mass domestic surveillance. Apples and oranges. Letting the NSA control all our private data data does not mean the CIA then runs a more robust HUMINT clandestine program against the Iranians, al Qaida, the Chinese or Pakistanis. Likely it will produce the opposite effect as relying systemically more and more on SIGINT is a dandy bureaucratic excuse to approve fewer and fewer covert operations or risky espionage targets.

Americans, outside State Department personnel who have to deal with the resultant headaches, could really care less if the NSA bugs the German chancellor’s cell phone or the ex-terrorist Marxist president of Brazil. To the extent they think of it at all, most would probably say “Hell, yeah!” because that is exactly what a foreign intelligence service is for. If Americans heard the NSA or CIA conducted some surveillance that resulted in Ayman al-Zawahiri being killed in a horrible way it is likely to meet with high approval ratings.
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The idea that Americans as a whole, outside of the usual anti-American activist-protestor crowd, dislike successful covert ops against our enemies is a proposition for which there is scant evidence. The so-called “Frontpage rule” being touted by Pincus is complete B.S. intended to blur the lines of what institutional missions are really being discussed.
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If senior managers of the NSA and CIA would rather investigate American citizens on a national scale in secret then they are in the wrong line of work and should resign or retire so that people more motivated to harry our enemies can take their places. Mass surveillance is the job of a secret police, not a foreign intelligence or even a counterintelligence service. In some countries a secret police agency is a normal and legal part of the government structure. The United States is not one of those nations and the “big boy rules” for IC operations overseas against specific, dangerous, hostile foreign targets cannot apply inside the United States against the broad mass of citizens while having the US remain a constitutional democracy anchored in the rule of law.
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You can have one or the other but not both.
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Is Grand Strategy Democratic?

Friday, August 9th, 2013

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

Grand strategy in 1941

A very interesting article at Small Wars Journal by Captain Sean F.X. Barrett, USMC on the state of contemporary grand strategy. Definitely worth the time to read the whole thing:, but I am only going to make meandering comments on a few sections:

The Democratization of Grand Strategy 

Calls for a formalized strategic planning process and grand strategy have been mounting for years.  However, those sounding these calls erroneously remember a past that rarely if ever existed and overestimate the importance of a formalized process and a final product.  Most disconcertingly, they assume that government is necessarily the only supplier of grand strategy, while ignoring that those in government are not incentivized to actually produce it.  In fact, the proliferation of communications technology, which provides the means for accessing a wealth of open source intelligence and for disseminating ideas, and the plethora of academics, analysts, and other intellectuals outside of official government communities provide a more effective, democratic, and transparent substitute to the (oftentimes imagined) Project Solariums of the past.  The environment in which these intellectuals operate nurtures “real devils,” who vigorously propose policy and strategy alternatives in which they truly believe and have a stake in seeing implemented, resulting in a de facto strategic planning process, whose merits far exceed those of a de jure one. 

I think the call for a formal process, or at least an institutionalized forum for “doing grand strategy”, derives from both the lack of incentives correctly noted by Barrett and the frequently piss-poor and astrategic performance of American statesmen after the Soviet collapse. That the resulting criticism, proposals, counter-proposals, debates and domestic politics in drag relating to grand strategy are an alternative, open-source and more effective mechanism than formal planning is an intriguing idea.

Certainly, if a statesman or senior policy adviser have not done hard thinking about geopolitics and grand strategy while in the political wilderness then they won’t do it at all. Once in office, there simply is no time even if the inclination is present. Richard Nixon, who thought very seriously on these matters, as POTUS was militant about having Haldeman carve out undisturbed time for him to continue doing so in a secret “hideaway” office in the EOB. This was highly unusual and difficult even for Nixon to maintain – most presidents and senior officials faced with 18 hour days, 6-7 days a week, simply want to unwind in their off hours, see their loved ones or sleep.

….Furthermore, when formalized strategic planning processes and grand strategy have actually existed, their importance has largely been exaggerated.  For example, Richard Immerman debunks some of the myths surrounding Project Solarium, which is often referenced today as a model for grand strategy.  In referencing the intelligence that was ostensibly utilized during Project Solarium to guide the formation of grand strategy, he argues that, even though President Eisenhower—whose highest priority was to exploit the full resources of government to formulate a more effective and sustainable national strategy—was welcoming of CIA input, this input had minimal impact on President Eisenhower’s policies or grand strategy.[viii]  After such a long time serving in the Army, President Eisenhower had already developed highly formed beliefs about national security, and while intelligence has been perceived as playing a critical role by confirming his beliefs, a lack of confirmation would not have significantly impacted or altered his decisions.[ix]  Furthermore, Immerman claims that he has “never been able to locate a scintilla of evidence collected by the CIA and other agencies that changed Eisenhower’s [mind].”[x]   

While Barrett is correct that in discerning grand strategy in historical eras it is often reified and exaggerated retrospectively -that is because grand strategy, much like strategy itself, has a deeply iterative character. In facing the Soviet challenge,  Project Solarium both responded to and built upon a solid foundation laid by the post-warwise menNSC-68, Containment policy, the Marshall Plan, the National Security Act, the creation of the CIA , NSC, NATO, the Department of Defense, the Truman Doctrine, the X Article, the Long  Telegram, Bretton Woods and stretching back to WWII, the geopolitical vision of The Atlantic Charter, Potsdam and FDR’s Four Freedoms. Project Solarium was not ex nihilo but an effort to improve, shape, refine and surpass what the Eisenhower administration had inherited from it’s Democratic predecessors.

Barrett is also on target when he identifies a strong ideological-political predisposition in formulation of grand strategy. Eisenhower had not only operational/experential preferences but a worldview that he brought with him into the White House and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had even stronger convictions that, especially in regard to his fierce and almost Calvinistic anti-communism, sometimes render him a caricature today. We have to be careful though in parsing public statements and private assessments. Dulles, despite his hardline reputation, was a sophisticated and highly influential figure in American foreign policy as the senior GOP adviser through most of the 1940′s. Despite talk of “rollback”, neither Dulles nor Eisenhower had any appetite for leaping into Hungary militarily to support the anti-Soviet revolt or supporting the Franco-British-Israeli debacle in the Suez. Still less attractive was the prospect of military intervention in faraway Laos. Grand strategic ideas were applied with realism and prudence by the Eisenhower administration.

….It should come as no surprise that three of the first four members of the 2014 QDR’s “independent” panel are those that self-selected into the DOD and conformed and performed so well as to achieve flag officer rank, including retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Air Force Gen. Gregory S. Martin, former commander of Air Force Materiel Command; and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, former Defense Intelligence Agency director.[xx]  The fourth member, Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, has been deemed politically palatable enough by both Congress and the Obama Administration, and one must assume the DOD well, since nominations are not made, and consent by Congress not given, without DOD’s at least tacit approval.  That we insist on calling this panel independent should be disconcerting enough in itself.  The first four members were selected by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will appoint the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the panel, and the other panel appointees will be made by the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.  This situation is not entirely dissimilar to China under the Ming emperors, wherein the emperors’ concern for stability, obedience, and conformism overlapped with the bureaucracy and their strong aversion to changing the status quo.  The imperial literary examination system of Imperial China helped breed this mutually beneficial conformism, and its effects prove quite relevant in this regard.  While the examination preserved the cultural unity and political stability of China, it also impeded originality and experimentation.[xxi]

Yes.

Arguably, the period of Ming-Q’ing decline may have been superior in the sense that the Confucian classics and the exams upon which they were based that were the gateway to the mandarinate were at least, an objective and respected yardstick, however ossified and ritualized. All we have by contrast are partisan politics, bureaucratic culture and the increasingly oligarchic client-patron networks within the Beltway and Manhattan..

….President Eisenhower commissioned Project Solarium in part to devise a strategy for coping with a lack of knowledge about the Soviets’ intentions and capabilities.  Today, however, more and more strategic intelligence is publicly available.  For example, the National Intelligence Council’s[xxiii] new Global Trends series is unclassified.  We now arguably suffer not from too little information, but from too much. This has increasingly democratized the arena of grand strategy and enabled more and more even amateur analysts to help process the wealth of information in the public domain and formulate it into alternative visions for the future.  One might argue that what these different entities focus on is simply policy or at best strategies for individual instruments of national power.  However, even individual policy or strategy analyses might instead be seen as reflections of the overarching principles that they support (and that are often enumerated in the mission statements of many of these think tanks, institutes, and analysis centers), which as Sinnreich contends, are what in fact help form the basis of an enduring grand strategy

Sort of. There are two other ways to look at this picture.

First, that we have an insufficient consensus bordering on ideological schism within the elite as to what America is and is supposed to become that executing  foreign policy, much less enunciating a grand strategy, cannot get beyond the lowest common denominators between left and right and bureaucratic autopilot. This in turn causes the cacophony of voices on grand strategy. I partially subscribe to this view.

Secondly, that our elite, whatever their divisions over political passions or personalities have a consensus grand strategy ( or at least, an ethos) for generational and class aggrandizement at the expense of the rest of us and American national interest in a way that the former 20th century governing class called the Eastern Establishment would have neither imagined nor tolerated. The resulting ferment of “bottom-up” grand strategy is a result of increasing divergence of interests between rulers and the ruled and an erosion of the former’s legitimacy as a result of their self-aggrandizing game-rigging , abandonment of the ethic of leadership as stewardship for “ubi est mea” and a deficit of competence that contrasts with their enormously inflated collective sense of self-importance.

I partially subscribe to this one as well.

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For the Fourth of July: The Once and Future Republic?

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Ahem….”I told you so“.

“Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations. How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?”

                                                             - Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
                                                                 A primary author of The Patriot Act 

“We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA’s dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence. Gen. Alexander’s testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program helped thwart ‘dozens’ of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods. The public deserves a clear explanation”

                                                                 - Senators Ron Wyden (D- Oregon) and Mark Udall (D- Colorado)

“What I learned from our journalists should alarm everyone in this room and should alarm everyone in this country….The actions of the DoJ against AP are already having an impact beyond the specifics of this particular case. Some of our longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren’t about national security. And in some cases, government employees that we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone, and some are reluctant to meet in person. This chilling effect is not just at AP, it’s happening at other news organizations as well”

                                                               - Gary Pruitt, President of the Associated Press 

“The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry….But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

                                                              – Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City 

“One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

                                                                -Thomas Friedman, NYT Columnist 

“Toll records, phone records like this, that don’t include any content, are not covered by the fourth amendment because people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in who they called and when they called, that’s something you show to the phone company. That’s something you show to many, many people within the phone company on a regular basis.”

                                                                 - James Cole, Deputy Attorney-General 

“In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance.”

                                                                 -Barack Obama, President of the United States 

While we need intelligence services, including the formidable collection capacity of the NSA, we don’t need a mammoth repository of information being continually compiled on every American, held in perpetuity by the US government.

First, the mere existence of so massive a database on the data of all Americans is itself a critical strategic vulnerability and a potential risk to the national security of the United States because it centralizes for any would be spy or hacker not just anything, but virtually *everything* they would want to know about *everyone*. The greatest testament against the strategic wisdom of this scheme from a counterintelligence perspective is the erstwhile Mr. Edward Snowden – breach just one security regime and you walk away with the whole store or as much of the store as you have time and brains to snatch.

How many Snowdens have we *not* heard about because they were quietly fired by a contractor? How many other Snowdens working for foreign intelligence services eluded government detection and got away with who knows what?  Or are still doing it now?

Not exactly a resilient system from a cybersecurity perspective, is it?

What the USG has done here is not dumb. It is fucking dumb with a capital F. Sometimes we get so caught up from a technical viewpoint in what we might be able to do that no one stops and seriously considers if we should do it. From such unasked questions come the unwanted second and third order effects we live to rue.

Unless, of course,  building a draconian comprehensive digital dragnet for a  ”leaky system” is what was desired in the first place. If so, bravo gentlemen.

Which brings us to the second point: the surveillance state as currently configured in law with the legal equivalent of string and chewing gum is inimical to the long term survival of the United States as a constitutional Republic. This is not an attack on any particular person or politician or three letter agency. It’s a hard world filled with extremely bad men who would do us lasting harm, so we need our spooks, but the spooks need proper constitutional boundaries set by our elected representatives in which to operate and somewhere in the past decade we have crossed that Rubicon.

The United States of America has had a historically remarkable run of 237 years of good government and in all that time the system failed us only once. That one time cost the lives of approximately 630,000 Americans.

On a level of moral and political legitimacy, we have created a bureaucratic-technological machine, a sleepless cyber  J. Edgar Hoover on steroids that contradicts our deeply held political values that define what America is and aspires to be. There is no way to reconcile cradle-to-grave digital dossiers on the 24/7 life of every American with the provisions of the US. Constitution. Really, an ever-watching state was not in the cards at our Constitutional Convention, even with the delegates like Alexander Hamilton who privately thought George Washington might make a fine King.

On a more pragmatic level, in creating the SIGINT-cyber surveillance state we have made not an idiot-proof system, but an idiot-enabling one that represents an enormous potential reserve of power that will be an unbearable temptation for misuse and abuse. The long, bloody and sordid record of human nature indicates that someone, eventually, will not be able to resist that temptation but will be smart enough to get away with it. If we are greatly fortunate, it will be a lazy person of limited vision looking merely to enrich themselves and their friends. Or a malevolent minor bureaucrat like Lois Lerner looking to punish “the little people” who raised her ire.  If we are unlucky, it will be a gifted figure of ill intent and outsized ambitions, an American Caesar.

Or an American Stalin.

In the long term, our Democracy will not be healthy when the government – that is, the Executive – monitors everyone and stores everything  we do forever. While most of us are not that interesting, reporters, public figures, newspaper publishers, members of Congress, aspiring politicians, their campaign donors,  judges, dissenters, writers and so on are very interesting to people in power. The Congress, for example, cannot do it’s job properly when it’s cloakroom is bugged and their email is read anymore than can the editorial office of the Associated Press. What we have built, if it existed in a foreign country, would be frankly described as a “Deep State.  Nations with deep states are not pleasant places to live and they usually do not work well. At best, they look like Russia and Turkey, at worst they look like Pakistan and Iran.

Rolling the surveillance state back to targeting foreign enemies, it’s proper and constitutional role, instead of every American citizen – yes, we are all, every man, woman and child of every race, creed, color and political persuasion being treated as potential enemies by the Federal government – is up to us and only us.  Tell your Congressman, your Senator and the President what you think in a respectful and thoughtful way – and then make this an issue that decides your vote.

If we do nothing, we have no one to blame but ourselves for what comes next. We can at least console ourselves with pride in the fact that the US had a good go at making freedom work unequaled in world history, but that democracy may had had it’s time.  Others in the distant future, may profit from our example the way we learned from Athens, Rome and Britain. Or we can leave while the door still remains open.

Enjoy your Fourth.

                                                “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

                                                                      – Mrs. Powell

                                             ” A Republic, if you can keep it”

                                                                      – Benjamin Franklin
                                                                         Signer of the Declaration of Independence
                                                                         Delegate, Constitutional Convention

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