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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.

Are Insurgencies “Antifragile”?

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  – they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990’s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000’s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. -Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed

Robb on the Networked Age

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

John is en fuego today:

Life in a Networked Age

.….In the last thirty years, we’ve seen a shift in the technological substrate.  This new susbstrate is increasingly a family of technologies related to information networks.

As this new substrate begins to take control, we’re going to need new management forms.  Both bureaucratic and market systems are proving insuffient solutions to the challenges of a networked age.  

In both cases, the emergence of a global network is eroding the efficacy of bureaucracy and markets as solutions.  How?  One reason is scale.  

A global network is too large and complex for a bureaucracy to manage.  It would be too slow, expensive, and inefficient to be of value.  Further, even if one could be built, it would be impossible to apply market dyanmics (via democratic elections) to selecting the leaders of that bureaucracy.  The diversity in the views of the 7 billion of us on this planet are too vast.  

In terms of markets, a global marketplace is too unstable.   Interlinked, and tightly coupled markets are prone to frequent and disasterous failures.  Additionally, a global marketplace is easy for insiders to corrupt and rig, as we saw with the 2008 financial melt-down.   Given instability and unmitigated corruption, markets will fail as a decision making mechanism.  

So, what’s going to replace bureaucracy and markets?

Read the rest here.

In very strong agreement with John. I like markets and think they produce efficient and optimized results for many things ( not all things) but free markets currently face massive (and sadly bipartisan) efforts to rig them by the oligarchy here at home, much less in autocratic states where the  practice of state socialism, kleptocracy and government by mafia or tribal/sectarian minority is the norm.  People will seek work-around structures to adapt, thrive and evade extortionate schemes by elites that have hijacked the state.

Hat tip to Lexington Green

We spend far too much time on content, and not enough time on form

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — recursion as form — this one’s for analysts: poets should know it already ]

.

We spend far too much time on content, and not enough time on form.

We spend far too much time on the data, and not enough time on relationships. It is pattern that connects the dots with accuracy, not more dots – quality of insight, not quantity of information.

And pattern is underlying form.

Haiku is a form. The sonnet is a form, the sonata is a form. And just to juxtapose sonnet and sonata is to recognize the formal relationship between them.

1.

Recursion is the form that Doug Hofstadter explores in his book, Godel Escher Bach, and you’ll find it every time one mirror reflects another mirror (what color does a chameleon turn when placed on a mirror?), every time there’s a doll inside a doll inside a Matrioshka doll, often in the form of a paradox (“this sentence is meaningless”) – and when people take photos of themselves holding photos of themselves…

as in the pic of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle and (in case your politics doesn’t agree so much with Chomsky) the one below them of Jacob Appelbaum and Donald Knuth in my “specs” image at the top of this post.

2.

Content can be powerful, but form really doubles up on the power. Here’s one way of thinking about it: form is what tightens information into meaning.

A couple of news reports in the last couple of days have caught my attention because of their form:

Charter of Open Source Org is Classified, CIA Says

Open Source Works, which is the CIA’s in-house open source analysis component, is devoted to intelligence analysis of unclassified, open source information. Oddly, however, the directive that established Open Source Works is classified, as is the charter of the organization. In fact, CIA says the very existence of any such records is a classified fact.

“The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request,” wrote Susan Viscuso, CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator, in a November 29 response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive for the Open Source Works directive and charter.

“The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure,” Dr. Viscuso wrote.

This is a surprising development since Open Source Works — by definition — does not engage in clandestine collection of intelligence. Rather, it performs analysis based on unclassified, open source materials.

That’s hilarious, it’s so misguided: I don’t know whether to laugh or barf (not a word I ever expected to use in my writings, but there you go).

3.

That’s sad, this one’s just plain tragic:

Protesters calling for religious tolerance attacked with stones, threatened with death

Police are investigating a violent attack on a ‘silent protest’ calling for religious tolerance, held at the Artificial Beach to mark Human Rights Day.

Witnesses said a group of men threw rocks at the 15-30 demonstrators, calling out threats and vowing to kill them.

One witness who took photos of the attacked said he was “threatened with death if these pictures were leaked. He said we should never been seen in the streets or we will be sorry.”

Killing your enemies for reasons of religion is one thing: killing those who work for peace between you and your religious enemies is no worse of the face of it – it’s religious killing, no more and no less, in both cases — but it drives the point home with considerable, poignant force.

Keep your eye out for recursion, it’s an interesting business. And respect form – it empowers content.

4.

You’ll find recursion right at the heart of Shakespeare: his plays were performed in a round theater (the “wooden O” of Henry V) called the Globe, whose motto was “totus mundus agit histrionem” – roughly, “the whole world enacts a play” – a notion which Shakespeare put into the mouth of the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

A martial version of this idea, indeed, can be found in the philosopher Plotinus, who wrote in his Enneads (3.ii.15):

Men directing their weapons against each other — under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport — this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play, that death is nothing terrible, that to die in a war or in a fight is but to taste a little beforehand what old age has in store, to go away earlier and come back the sooner. So for misfortunes that may accompany life, the loss of property, for instance; the loser will see that there was a time when it was not his, that its possession is but a mock boon to the robbers, who will in their turn lose it to others, and even that to retain property is a greater loss than to forfeit it.

Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing.

5.

I thought it would be interesting to see if recursion had power, too, in the field of religion, and this passage from Ephesians (4.8) sprang to mind…

When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…

That’s a lovely recursion, “leading captivity captive”. But I think we can go deeper. John Donne‘s sonnet Death be not proud reaches to the very heart of the Christian message, it seems to me –it parallels the passage from Ephesians closely, while focusing in on the hope of resurrection with its stunning conclusion:

Death, thou shalt die.

Here’s the whole thing: profound content in impeccable form:

Death be not proud

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

6.

What do you think?

Open-Source Counterinsurgency in Mexico?

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Are the Mata Zetas an open source counterinsurgency of loyalist paramilitaries, a “black hand” of frustrated state security personnel or an embryonic cartel?

Mexico Fears Rise of Vigilante Justice

MEXICO CITY-A self-styled drug-trafficking group calling itself the “Zeta Killers” claimed responsibility this week for the recent murders of at least 35 people believed to belong to the Zetas, Mexico’s most violent criminal organization.

The claim by the “Mata Zetas” has stoked fears that Mexico, like Colombia a generation before, may be witnessing the rise of paramilitary drug gangs that seek society’s approval and tacit consent from the government to help society confront its ills, in this case, the Zetas.

On Wednesday, Mexico’s national security spokeswoman Alejandra Sota vowed in a statement that the government would “hunt down” and bring to justice any criminal group that takes justice into its own hands.

….”Our only objective is the Zetas cartel,” said a burly, hooded man who said he was a Mata Zetas spokesman, in the video. The man said that unlike the Zetas, his group didn’t “extort or kidnap” citizens and were “anonymous warriors, without faces, but proudly Mexican” who would work “clandestinely” but “always to benefit Mexico’s people.”

The mysterious group appears to be part of the New Generation drug cartel, which operates in the northwestern state of Jalisco, according to an earlier video that showed some three dozen hooded men brandishing automatic rifles as a spokesman vowed to wipe out the Zetas in Veracruz. In that video, the spokesman lauded the work of the Mexican armed forces against the Zetas, and urged citizens to give information on their location to the military.

Given the small size and relatively meager investment in Mexico’s military, compared to it’s GDP, the endemic corruption of the Mexican police and judiciary, the scale and firepower of the cartels and the degree of violence unleashed, the real surprise is that paramilitary activity has not arisen sooner. Assuming that the Mata Zetas are a genuine, emergent, grassroots paramilitary group ( something that Mexico’s corrupt political elite would find more threatening than the narcos). Too soon to tell.

It is difficult to see how the Mexican state, left to it’s own resources, can regain the initiative in Mexico against the cartels without either adopting tactics similar to those employed by Colombia to beat back FARC and ELN or engaging in a military mobilization sufficient to create a crushing advantage in manpower.

ADDENDUM:

SWJ Blog – Mexican Cartel Strategic Note


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