zenpundit.com » ideas

Archive for the ‘ideas’ Category

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.


Infinity Journal on the Strategy of Operation Protective Edge

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

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

Infinity Journal has an exclusive review up of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge campaign against HAMAS by LTC Ron Tira. Colonel Tira is the author of The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness.

Operation Protective Edge: Ends, Ways, Means and the Distinctive Context  (Free registration required)

….Much of Hamas’ history has been spent under Iranian foster parenthood, even though Iranians are Shiites and Hamas is a member of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. But, in 2011, the outbreak of the civil war in Syria presented the relations with an impossible test: Iran backed the Alawite (non-Sunni) Syrian regime in its bloody war against the rebels – many of whom are theological and ethnic brothers of Hamas. Hamas had to break ties with the Shiites.

Luckily for Hamas, in November 2011 the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s parliamentary elections and, subsequently, Egypt elected a Muslim Brotherhood president. An improved replacement for Iran was found. But on July 2013, the Egyptian army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government. The new military rulers of Egypt regard the Muslim Brotherhood as their archenemy – Hamas included.

Running out of options, Hamas looked to its nemesis Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a last financial and political resort. After years of disengagement – following the brutal killing of Fatah personnel in Gaza in 2007-8, the Hamas take-over of Gaza and divorce from the PA-run West Bank – Hamas eventually approached the PA and in April 2014 signed the Palestinian Unity Agreement. “Show me the money” demanded Hamas as the ink dried; yet the PA declined to finance Hamas-run Gaza.

With almost no allies and a financial inability to run Gaza or pay salaries, Hamas was at the brink of collapse. From its perspective, it experienced a near-existential threat. From Hamas’ side of the hill, it had no alternative but to fight its way out of the corner. This hardly resembled the context of the earlier Operation Pillar of Defense.

Israel’s lack of clarity regarding this unique context was followed by a lack of clarity in defining the enemy. Was it Hamas’ military wing, its exiled political leadership, the organization as a whole, or the Gaza Strip as a de facto state? And in this distinct context, what were the relevant centers of gravity? Hamas’ offensive capabilities, its center of combatant mass and leadership in the inner neighborhoods of Gaza City, the nod between Gaza’s military leadership and Hamas’ political leadership in Qatar, or the popular support of Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants? 

Read the rest here.

Tira has an astute appreciation for the disadvantages HAMAS labors under as a 4GW/Hybrid/Irregular/Whatever entity also trying to assume the panoply of prerogatives and obligations of a legitimate state.


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.


The Cockroaches of War. And of Jihad

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

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

John Robb had a cool post on the ultra-radical takfiri insurgency ISIS/ISIL and their self-proclaimed SunniCaliphate“, the Islamic Statewhom he gave as an example of “the cockroaches of war”:

ISIS Opens The World’s Biggest Bazaar of Violence

ISIS is a marketplace — a freewheeling bazaar of violence – and it is rapidly expanding.   

So far, it’s been very successful:

  • it operates freely in an area bigger than most countries (and it has lots of oil),
  • it has been attracting the participation of a growing number of organizations and individuals, and
  • it’s financially successful and self-funding (it’s already made billions of $$ from oil, crime, bank robberies, and more).

This success is due to the fact that ISIS isn’t trying to build a “state.”  It’s not a government. 

….This bazaar was built for one purpose:  perpetual expansion and continuous warfare.

To keep things running, ISIS offers a minimalist, decentralized governance.  Day-to-day life is governed by a simple, decentralized rule set: Sharia Law.

Participation is open to everyone willing to live under Sharia and able to expand the bazaar to new areas.

The strategies and tactics ISIS uses are open sourced.  Any group or individual can advance them, as long as they can demonstrate they work.  

Weapons and other technologies needed for war are developed, shared and sold between participants and the pace of development based on previous examples is very quick.

Making money through criminal activity is highly encouraged.  Mercenary work is encouraged.  

Read the whole post here.

ISIS recently captured a town in Lebanon and Iraq’s largest dam, adding to the dams they already control in Syria. More importantly, ISIS fighters outsmarted a Kurdish Peshmerga equivalent of a battalion, using artillery and snipers, to force the Kurds to withdraw from the town of Sinjar where they have begun persecuting the Yezidi minority. This is significant as the fearsome Peshmerga are no pushovers. To put this in perspective, this was a military feat by ISIS that Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard had great difficulty accomplishing without air support. It also reveals the Kurds may have some deficiencies with their logistics and operational level leadership (allegedly, the Peshmerga ran out of ammunition).

Absurd mummery about “Caliph Ibrahim” aside, as a fighting force and religious-political movement, ISIS has momentum and possesses the initiative. Despite their flamboyant cruelty, ISIS is attracting jihadis to a broken Iraq the way disaffected and radicalized German ex-soldiers swarmed into Freikorps units after the Great War. Reportedly, more British citizens have signed up with ISIS this year than have joined Britain’s territorial Army. Part of the reason is that ISIS, despite its obvious extremism and malevolence, is fighting successfully at the moral and mental levels of war and not merely the physical.

The strategist Colonel John Boyd described the purpose of fighting at the moral level of war as follows:

Essence of moral conflict

Create, exploit, and magnify
• Menace:
Impressions of danger to one’s well
being and survival.

• Uncertainty:
Impressions, or atmosphere,
generated by events that appear
ambiguous, erratic, contradictory,
unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.

• Mistrust:
Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion
that loosens human bonds among
members of an organic whole or
between organic wholes.


Surface, fear, anxiety, and

alienation in order to generate

many non-cooperative centers of
gravity, as well as subvert those
that adversary depends upon,
thereby magnify internal friction.


Destroy moral bonds
that permit an organic
whole to exist

To be a politically attractive force at the grand strategic level while doing morally reprehensible  things at the tactical level on a regular basis is no small strategic feat. Not a unique or impossible one though; both the Nazis and especially the Communists were able to continue to attract credulous Western supporters despite voluminous evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide (Communism still has western apologists in the media and academia). ISIS uses extreme violence but does so strategically with a vision of Caliphate to – 1)  to split Iraqi society into Sunnis vs. everyone else and split Sunnis into those who support ISIS and those who are “apostates” like the Shia, and are deserving of death; and 2) to destroy the Western concept of nation-states, replacing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with a borderless Caliphate to rule over the Ummah.

The ISIS message is simultaneously highly exclusive (extreme Salafi version of Sharia) as well as wholly universal. This – along with identifying the Shia as the enemy force -allows ISIS to fold in a large array of disaffected, angry, rival Iraqi Sunni factions under the aegis of their movement while still attracting a global swarm of jihadi volunteers.  Compare this with the self-isolating messaging and behavior of HAMAS who, despite fighting the “Zionist enemy” Israel, are thoroughly despised in the region by most of their natural Arab state allies, the Palestinian Authority and even the radical jihadi groups. Nor is HAMAS able to escape moral damage from committing war crimes in the eyes of the international community the way ISIS escapes harm from committing worse ones ( Not only do they escape moral costs, ISIS flips their atrocities into a net positive by terrorizing the potential opposition and looking self-confidently defiant of world opinion in Islamist eyes).

In ISIS, Global Guerrilla strategy is fusing with the penultimate radical jihadi ideology.


REVIEW: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Monday, August 4th, 2014

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

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss 

Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.

This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.

Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable - Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin,  Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring,  Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others.  “Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of  Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.

Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today.  Lev was a talented writer, a  Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.



Switch to our mobile site